San Jose State endured a few turbulent weeks after former coach Mike MacIntyre left for Colorado. It was nothing compared to how far the 24th-ranked Spartans had come in just a few years.
Little wonder San Jose State left Thursday's Military Bowl with a 29-20 victory over Bowling Green before an announced crowd of 17,385 at chilly RFK Stadium.
Spartans quarterback David Fales threw for a Military Bowl-record 395 yards and two touchdowns as San Jose State clinched its first 11-win season since 1940.
"To be able to get this last win was a cherry on top, that finisher to make it the most memorable and incredible season that we're going to have," defensive end Travis Johnson said.
The Spartans (11-2) locked up one last victory to savor after briefly surrendering a modest halftime lead. Yet they always had Fales and a stingy defense that created headaches for the Falcons (8-5) all day.
Bene Benwikere's blocked punt in the third quarter went out of the end zone to pull San Jose State to 13-12, and Fales promptly led a six-play scoring drive capped with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Chandler Jones to regain the lead.
After Bowling Green rallied for a touchdown, Fales again led a long drive capped when Austin Lopez connected on a go-ahead 27-yard field goal with 4:43 to play to make it 22-20.
Two plays later, the erratic Bowling Green offense made its most costly mistake. Johnson came off the edge to sack Falcons quarterback Matt Schilz, forcing a fumble linebacker Keith Smith recovered.
"We didn't make enough plays on offense," Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson said. "We didn't generate enough yards. We didn't generate enough points. At some point, you have to score points to win games. We struggled with that all year when we played the better teams on our schedule. That's where we came up short."
Five plays later, the Spartans punched in the game-sealing touchdown and a milestone victory for a program making only its second postseason appearance since the 1990 California Raisin Bowl.
"For us to get our 11th and to be up there with all those great teams is amazing, I'm speechless," Fales said.
The Spartans, who depart the disintegrating Western Athletic Conference for the Mountain West next year, have no plans to struggle in their new surroundings. But it will be difficult to top this season's memories.
San Jose State's seniors endured a two-year stretch of only three victories. They went through last year's 5-7 season, a campaign littered with close setbacks.
There would be no such what-ifs this fall. The Spartans more than acquitted themselves in an opening three-point loss at Stanford, then rattled off four straight victories, including triumphs at San Diego State and Navy. After a stumble against Utah State, San Jose State won seven in a row — its longest winning streak since 1987.
"I've been in the business a long time, at a lot of great places. I can honestly say this has been in the top two of all-time seasons," said interim coach Kent Baer, a veteran of 3½ decades of college coaching.
Still, the perfect finish was far from assured. After MacIntyre, the architect of San Jose State's resurrection from one of the nation's worst programs, departed for Colorado on Dec. 10, it was uncertain just how the Spartans would cope.
A day later, Baer stepped into a team meeting saying the change didn't matter and the Spartans still had something they had set out accomplish.
"Just saying that, it stopped all the thoughts of Coach Mac being gone," Johnson said.
And with Thursday's victory secure, so is the title of San Jose State's best team in the modern era — thoughts that won't leave this Spartans team anytime soon.
"What people don't talk about is we've won 13 of our last 15," said Baer, the Spartans' defensive coordinator the last three years who will join MacIntyre at Colorado in the same role. "That's a lot of wins in 15 games. It's just an unbelievable feeling. Any time you get 10 wins is magical. To get 11 is tremendous."
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