There’s no point in denying that San Jose State failed to meet expectations in 2021.
Coming off an unbeaten regular season to claim the program’s first Mountain West title, the Spartans fell flat multiple times this fall as the hype from an unprecedented campaign didn’t deliver a worthy encore performance.
All is not lost, though.
Thanksgiving Day is a chance for repentance at San Jose State (5-6, 3-4 Mountain West), which faces a must-win scenario to qualify for back-to-back bowl games for the first time in 35 years.
Standing in the way is none other than rival Fresno State in the eighth rendition for the Battle of the Valley Trophy (Fresno State holds a 42-38-3 edge in the series history overall).
“I don’t love where we’re at right now in terms of our record,” San Jose State coach Brent Brennan said. “I think that’s disappointing for everybody involved with Spartan football because we did have high expectations, so this game is huge for us.”
Brennan, in his fifth season at the helm, could’ve left last winter for a higher-profile position.
The Bay Area native opted to roll it back with a nearly intact starting lineup, including the entire defense anchored by last year’s Mountain West defensive player of the year Cade Hall, a defensive end out of nearby Bellarmine College Prep.
With one year of eligibility left, Hall won’t announce if he’ll return for 2022 until the season is over.
He remembers the end of 2019 at CEFCU Stadium, when San Jose State defeated Fresno State, 17-16. It helped the Spartans finish 5-7 overall, already eliminated from postseason consideration.
“We lost to UNLV the second-to-last game of the season and that was it,” Hall said. “We had no bowl game left to play, so from my perspective, I’m just thankful that we still have a shot to get into the postseason and it’s Fresno State of all teams.”
Fresno State, along with the rest of the upper-echelon teams in the Mountain West such as Boise State, Nevada and San Diego State, frequently finds itself in bowl games. The Spartans aim to join that group, and back-to-back appearances would be a start.
Sixth-year quarterback Nick Starkel, an SEC transfer, missed five games in October with what’s to be believed to be a broken left collarbone.
He reinvigorated the program last year while dealing with COVID-19 protocols, but has been hit-and-miss this time around with at least one interception in each of his six games on the field.
“At the end of the day, our expectations were to come back and to win every game and to win a Mountain West championship – and we did not meet our expectations,” Starkel said. “I think everybody would tell you that. Now, I am proud of how these guys have fought. I’m really proud of how we got to practice every day, how we’re continuing to work, how we’re continuing to fight towards a common goal, which is to beat these guys this week and go bowl eligible.”
Sixth-year senior left tackle Jack Snyder will extend his record for most games played and career starts at Spartan – 57 and 52, respectively.
After a redshirt year, San Jose State went 3-22 during his first two seasons on the field.
Thanksgiving Day could be the last time he suits up for the Spartans, certainly not something he’s overlooking.
“I think every season is difficult in its own way,” Snyder said. “To look on the bright side, in the five or six years I’ve been here I think the fact that our expectation this year was a Mountain West championship — that says a lot of where we’ve come. If you were to tell freshman Jack … that you’re playing for a bowl game after winning the Mountain West championship the year before, he would probably say that was a helluva career.”
Monday night at CEFCU Stadium underneath the scoreboard, San Jose State held a Thanksgiving feast for players, staff and family.
Snyder alone grubbed three plates worth of food.
“I thought about getting a fourth, but decided to cut it off,” Snyder said with a smile.
“Everyone left full,” Hall said. “It was a great night. Everyone ate a lot and everyone laughed a lot.”
Last year amid rising COVID cases across the country with no vaccine available, the Spartans filled plastic boxes with mashed potatoes, gravy and turkey only to eat on their own.
Life, in a way, has returned to an imperfect normal as the Spartans’ families joined them Monday.
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“My wife is a football widow and that is the reality for football families,” Brennan said. “We all do our best to be there as much as we can, but we also understand that we have this incredible job to do.
“And I’m lucky for her, because she’s a rock. She’s as tough as they come and she’s a wonderful mother. She understands that this time of the year we’re all in on football – and she’s all in on this year. She understands that there’s going to be times that I’m going to be there more for my players than I’m going to be there for my own kids. That’s not a part of my job that I love, but it’s part of a reality of it.”
Another reality for Brennan is that he can’t match preseason expectations with a win on Thanksgiving Day, but San Jose State still has a chance to extend its season.
“The good news is we’re going to be on national TV and everybody is going to be watching,” Brennan said. “Everybody watches football on Thanksgiving, don’t they? I hope so, this is America. I’m excited for us to have that opportunity.”