A pair of conference champions experiencing breakthrough seasons highlight one of the postseason’s best bowl games when No. 19 San Jose State clashes with Ball State in the Arizona Bowl on Thursday.
The Spartans are the undefeated (7-0) champions of the Mountain West, claiming their first outright conference championship since winning the Big West in 1990. Fourth-year coach Brent Brennan was named Mountain West Coach of the Year and is a finalist for multiple national Coach of the Year awards after leading the program to its first winning season since 2012. The bowl game presents an opportunity for the program to record the first 8-0 record since San Jose State went 13-0 in 1939.
Meanwhile, Ball State is in its fifth year with Mike Neu as head coach and also on the cusp of historic success after handing Buffalo its first loss of the season in the MAC Championship Game. After claiming the MAC West Division title for the first time since 2008, the win against the Bulls gave Ball State its first win against a ranked opponent since 2012 and first conference championship since 1996. The Arizona Bowl is Ball State’s first bowl appearance since the GoDaddy Bowl in 2013, and the Cardinals are seeking the program’s first-ever bowl victory (0-9).
San Jose State: The one player with bowl experience on San Jose State’s roster is starting quarterback Nick Starkel. The former Texas A&M and Arkansas quarterback brought not only 19 games of combined FBS experience to the table for San Jose State’s offense but also a prolific showing with 499 passing yards and four touchdowns in a 55-52 loss to Wake Forest in the 2017 Belk Bowl when he was with the Aggies. Starkel, the conference leader in passing efficiency and a second team All-Mountain West selection, brought that big-game energy to the conference championship game against Boise State with 453 yards and three touchdowns in the win against the Broncos. But while Starkel has been a highlight, San Jose State’s great strength in this undefeated run has been its defense, which ranks No. 13 nationally allowing just 17.7 points per game. The defense has been particularly strong in the second half, helping San Jose State outscore opponents 117-55 on the season after halftime and powering comeback wins against San Diego State and Nevada. The Spartans trailed in both games against fellow MW contenders by at least 10 points in the second quarter and eventually won by double-digits.
Ball State: Huge season for Mike Neu here in his fifth year at his alma mater. The Cardinals were just 4-20 in MAC play during his first three years but have been 10-5 in the last two and now boast a conference championship. Neu was a four-year quarterback at Ball State, earning the MAC MVP and Offensive Player of the Year honors at the end of his senior season as he led the Cardinals to a MAC championship in 1993. Now he helps guide redshirt senior quarterback Drew Plitt, a former Wing-T quarterback in high school who has showcased impressive production in the passing game with 15 total touchdowns over the last four games. Like San Jose State, the ride to a championship was thrilling with five of Ball State’s seven games decided by a touchdown or less (4-1 in those games), and just as their opponent on Thursday, the Cardinals have been powered by a stout defense that has answered the call in key situations.
Ball State’s defense is led by the MAC co-Defensive Player of the Year Brandon Martin, who sustained a season-ending injury in the 2019 opener and returned to action in 2020 with a force. Martin ranks No. 3 among all FBS players with 12.1 tackles per game and he, along with All-MAC first team selections Anthony Ekpe at linebacker and Bryce Cosby at safety, star in one the league’s best back sevens. Ball State has held four high-scoring offenses to an average of 18.5 points below their average over the past four games, most recently limiting Buffalo (51.8 points per game) to just 28 in the MAC Championship Game.
Game: Arizona Bowl
Date: Thursday, Dec. 31 | Time: 2 p.m. ET
Location: Arizona Stadium — Tucson, Arizona
TV: CBS | Live stream: CBSSports.com, CBS Sports App
Arizona Bowl prediction, picks
San Jose State Spartans
I’ve got a couple of angles on this game, and both come down to the fact that we’ve got a pair of strong defensive teams and a Ball State side that has been underrated by the power rankings. With so much on the line for both of these teams, from the first undefeated since since before World War II for San Jose State and a first-ever bowl win for Ball State, I’m expecting the defenses to take charge as the offenses try to limit mistakes. That leads to a game that’s lower-scoring, so I like the under. But this is also a great opportunity to take Ball State as an underdog by more than a touchdown. Pick: Under 63 | San Jose State 31, Ball State 24
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