Tucson, AZ—All year San Jose State has been stellar for four quarters all season. Thursday afternoon, the Spartans came up a little short.
Cornerback Antonio Phillips returned an interception 53 yards for a touchdown, Drew Plitt put up two scores and Ball State beat short-handed No. 19 San Jose State 34-13 in the Arizona Bowl on Thursday at Arizona Stadium in Tucson.
The Spartans (7-1, No. 22 CFP) had to play without its Mountain West Conference player of the year Cade Hall due to COVID-19 issues.
Ball State (7-1) took advantage and set tone with its up tempo offense moving the ball and down the field. Phillips’ helped with his interception for a 27-0 lead in the first quarter.
“People ask if this is a Super Bowl-type game or a Pro Bowl-type game,” Ball state coach Mike Neu said. “This is a Super Bowl-type game for us. I’m proud of these guys for playing Cardinals football.”
Already short-handed, San Jose State lost tight end Derrick Deese Jr., the team leader with five touchdown catches, to a neck injury on the first play of the contest.
SJSU quarterback Nick Starkel injured his left knee in the second quarter but later returned wearing a brace for support. He threw for 268 yards and a touchdown with three picks.
“Ball State came out and played hard and they get rewarded for it,” said Starkel. We felt confident with the guys we had going into this game and I take full responsibility for the interceptions because when I have the ball in my hands, it’s all on me.”
Both teams came into the bowl game undefeated and surging.
San Jose State, who went 1-11 just two years ago, had their best season since going 13-0 in 1939. SJSU won its first Mountain West championship and had its first winning season since 2012.
Ball State got off to a quick start against the short-handed Spartans.
Phillips scored on his interception when Starkel had a miscommunication with a receiver on the Spartans’ opening drive. Ball State kept rolling with its up-tempo offense, scoring on 3-yard runs by Will Jones and Tye Evans. Plitt also scored on a 1-yard, fourth-down run after Nic Jones blocked Elijah Fischer’s punt.
“We came out with a purpose,” Neu said.
The Spartans finally got it going after Starkel was injured, but backup Nick Nash threw an pick in the end zone. SJSU kicker Matt Mercurio closed the half with a missed 49-yard field goal attempt.
Drew Plitt’s 48-yard TD pass to Yo’Heinz Tyler made it 33-0 before San Jose State finally scored on Charlie Bostic’s 99-yard kickoff return.
Brennan talked about being short-handed affected the team emotionally and personnel-wise through the first half and into the third quarter. The Spartans trailed 34-0 before scoring two third-quarter touchdowns to complete the scoring.
“The best story of Spartan football this year has been our brotherhood and our family,” Spartans coach Brent Brennan said. “In our process of building that together and for those guys who couldn’t be a part of today, it’s completely devastating and heartbreaking for them and everyone feels that.”
San Jose State ended the season with 591 yards on kickoff returns, barely topping Nevada (590) for the most in the Mountain West.
“That was the best thing to do for our players,” Brennan said in a postgame news conference. “That was the right thing to do for our young men with what they have been through and their mental health and being back with their people.”
San Jose State’s bid for an undefeated season began to unravel before the game started and a shaky first quarter put the Spartans in too big of a hole.
Ball State started fast against the short-handed Spartans and rode it to a historic first bowl win.
Plitt was efficient, throwing for 217 yards on 12-of-19 passing.
He got help from the hard-running duo of Jones and Donny Marcus.
Jones had 89 yards on 22 carries and the touchdown. Marcus had 69 yards on 10 carries, including a 28-yard run.