The Mercury News Weekend

BOWLED OVER

Arizona Bowl drubbing at hands of Ball State ends San Jose State’s dream of perfect season

- By Justice delos Santos

San Jose State’s historic football season was defined by everything breaking right amid a relentless series of unpreceden­ted challenges.

Thursday, the magic ran out in epic fashion.

With five starters and both the defensive and offensive coordinato­rs suddenly “unavailabl­e” for the game — news the school confirmed minutes before kickoff — San Jose State was crushed by Ball State 34-13 in the Arizona Bowl.

The Spartans’ bid for their first perfect season in 81 years ended in the first quarter as Ball State, which had never won a bowl game, charged to a 27- 0 lead against its deflated opponent.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of disappoint­ment in our locker room right now with our players and our coaching staff,” coach Brent Brennan said. “We just let them

get out too far, and we couldn’t make it up.”

It is unclear when San Jose State learned that it would be without six players, including

Mountain West defensive player of the year Cade Hall, and offensive coordinato­r Ryan McGiven and defensive coordinato­r Derrick Odum.

Their absence was announced on the team’s pregame radio show. In addition to Hall, the Spartans were without receiver Bailey Gaither, safety Tre Jenkins and offensive linemen Kyle Hoppe and Tyler Stevens — all starters.

Kick returner Shamar Garrett also was unavailabl­e.

A San Jose State spokesman said shortly before kickoff that he could acknowledg­e who was “unavailabl­e” once the

game started and added, “It would be inappropri­ate to attribute ‘not available’ strictly to COVID-19 issues or protocols.”

San Jose State never issued a follow-up statement.

The absence of those players and coaches came on the heels of the team’s return to the Bay Area. After winning the Mountain West championsh­ip game on Dec. 19, San Jose State elected to return to San Jose so the players could spend Christmas with their families. Because of that decision, San Jose State did not practice until Monday in Tucson.

After the loss, Brennan said he did not regret the choice.

“That was the right thing to do for our young men with what they had been through and their mental health and just being back with their people,” Brennan said.

The Spartans (7-1) lost a sixth starter on the first offensive snap when tight end Derrick Deese Jr. landed on his head after catching a short pass and being upended.

Deese spent time in the medical tent before walking back to the locker room while holding his neck. The tight end was out of uniform when he returned to the sidelines in the second quarter.

Without much of its core, San Jose State looked like an entirely different team. The defense — excluding the pick- six that Nick Starkel threw — surrendere­d the most points it has allowed all season. The offense lacked its typical dynamism and efficiency, turning the ball over a season-high four times, three of which were intercepti­ons from Starkel.

By the end of the first quar ter, the Spar tans trailed 27- 0.

“I gotta take full responsibi­lity for it,” Starkel said. “When I have that ball in my hand, I’m the one responsibl­e for it. Whatever happens, whether it’s a guy falling down or a ball getting tipped or something like that, ultimately it’s my fault.”

The mistakes piled up quickly. Starkel threw a pick- six to all- conference cornerback Antonio Phillips shortly after Deese went down. Punter Elijah Fischer badly shanked one punt for just 24 yards, then had another attempt blocked. Both times, it led to touchdowns for Ball State (7-1).

Ball State also benefited from luck when receiver Antwan Davis hauled in an 11-yard reception in which his foot appeared to go out of bounds. The catch was not overturned, setting up a three-yard rushing touchdown by Tye Evans.

SJSU briefly lost Starkel in the second quarter when the quarterbac­k limped off with a knee injury. Before he returned, Nick Nash led the Spartans’ best drive but then threw an intercepti­on in the red zone.

The Spartans’ uncommon resiliency had carried them for three months, starting with an unschedule­d 12- day stay at Humboldt State University, 320 miles from home. That’s where the Spartans held training camp after Covid shut down Santa Clara County. A subsequent shutdown turned three home games into road games in Hawaii and Nevada.

They had survived all this and more, including a 20-7 halftime deficit three weeks ago against Nevada.

After a Ball State touchdown to make the score 34- 0, Charlie Bostic III returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards to put San Jose State on the board. And when the Spartans closed the third quarter with a touchdown to pull within 34-13, there was a ray of hope.

Fifteen minutes to play, three touchdowns needed. Twice the Spartans drove into Ball State territory, once to the 13, another time to the 33. Both times, they ran out of downs.

They’d run out of magic.

 ?? PHOTOS BY RICK SCUTERI — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Ball State safety Bryce Cosby upends San Jose State tight end Derrick Deese Jr. in the first half of the Arizona Bowl in Tucson, Ariz.
PHOTOS BY RICK SCUTERI — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Ball State safety Bryce Cosby upends San Jose State tight end Derrick Deese Jr. in the first half of the Arizona Bowl in Tucson, Ariz.
 ??  ?? Ball State safety Brett Anderson II intercepts a pass intended for San Jose State’s Isaiah Hamilton during the second half Thursday.
Ball State safety Brett Anderson II intercepts a pass intended for San Jose State’s Isaiah Hamilton during the second half Thursday.
 ?? RICK SCUTERI — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? San Jose State running back Kairee Robinson runs for a first down against Ball State in the Arizona Bowl.
RICK SCUTERI — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS San Jose State running back Kairee Robinson runs for a first down against Ball State in the Arizona Bowl.

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