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WASHINGTON – Among the accomplishments this season for San Jose State: It's no longer a school anyone would want to schedule for homecoming.
The No. 24 Spartans have their first 11-win season since 1940, capping a comeback year with a 29-20 win over Bowling Green in the Military Bowl. In the national rankings for the first time since 1975, San Jose State (11-2) finished with a seven-game winning streak and put aside the distractions surrounding the recent departure of coach Mike MacIntyre.
"I don't think we've ever been respected like we should have been," defensive end Travis Johnson said. "They've looked at San Jose State on the schedule and been like, 'OK, you know that's a beatable game.' And that's something we all wanted to change. No one ever wants to be looked at as someone who's easy to beat."
The Spartans were 1-12 just two years ago and were rebuilt by MacIntyre, who left this month for a better payday at Colorado. Defensive coordinator Kent Baer coached the bowl game but was passed over for the full-time job in favor of San Diego's Ron Caragher. Baer plans to follow MacIntyre to the Buffalos.
"I didn't cry, but I wanted to," said Baer, asked about his postgame speech to the team. "I stood tall, took a couple of deep breaths. It's been a little emotional the last few days."
The only quibble is whether the 2012 Spartans should have bragging rights as the best team in school history ahead of the 1938 and 1940 teams, which both went 11-1.
"A couple of them have contested it, but that's all right," Baer said with a laugh. "We'll play 'em."
Bowling Green (8-5) had a similar turnaround, improving from 2-10 in 2010 under coach Dave Clawson to get back in the postseason. The Falcons, like the Spartans, shouldn't be mistaken for a soft spot on the schedule any time soon.
"A year ago we made a nice step that we went from being awful to average," Clawson said. "I felt this was a team that could make that next step, and we won three more games. ... We found a way to get from five to eight. Now we have to find a way to get from eight to 11."
Coaching aside, the difference Thursday was that San Jose State had the better quarterback, David Fales, who led the nation in completion percentage in the regular season. The dart-throwing transfer started strong and finished stronger in the wind and cold at RFK Stadium, completing 33 of 43 passes for 395 yards and two touchdowns.
Fales led the drive that set up Austin Lopez's 27-yard field goal with 4:43 remaining, and De'Leon Eskridge's 1-yard run with 2:34 left provided the insurance. Fales was an unknown when he arrived on campus in the spring, but he quickly became the offensive leader the Spartans needed.
"He was like that puzzle piece that was able to make everything come together," Johnson said.
Fales went over the 4,000-yard passing mark for the season, hitting Kyle Nunn for a 33-yard score to give the Spartans a first-quarter lead and finding the stutter-stepping Chandler Jones for an 18-yard reception that put San Jose State back in front, 19-13, in the third quarter.
Bowling Green retook the lead in the fourth quarter with a 68-yard drive, finished off by John Pettigrew's 1-yard run with 10:26 remaining.
But Fales went 7 for 10 on a 68-yard march that got well within range for Lopez, who had a perfect season — making all 17 of his field goal attempts. The Spartans then forced a turnover that led to Eskridge's clinching touchdown.
"We didn't generate enough yards, didn't generate enough points," Clawson said. "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."
The Military Bowl was set to pit Army against an ACC team, but Army wasn't bowl-eligible and the ACC had a short supply of bowl-eligible schools. As a result, there was little excitement for the game in the nation's capital. The upper deck of RFK was virtually empty during the second half of the MAC-WAC matchup, and the attendance was announced as 17,835.
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