San Jose State football: The view from behind enemy lines at Arizona Bowl

The only thing standing between San Jose State and a perfect season is Ball State, the Mid-American Conference champion that has carved a path nearly identical to the Spartans’ on its way to the Arizona Bowl on Thursday.
Coach Mike Neu didn’t have much success in his first three seasons at the Muncie, Indiana university, going 10-26 from 2016-18.
Last year, like San Jose State’s Brent Brennan, Neu finished 5-7 but missed a bowl invitation because of his team’s inability to win close games. 
This season, the Cardinals — again, like Brennan’s Spartans — have figured it out. Five of Ball State’s six wins have been by 10 points or fewer.
In its upset of then-No. 23 Buffalo in the Mid-American Conference championship game, Ball State shut down MAC offensive player of the year Jaret Patterson, limiting the running back to just 47 yards.
San Jose State will be Ball State’s toughest opponent. The Spartans are ranked 19th in the county, the second-highest in school history, surpassed only by its No. 18 placement during a 13-0 season in 1939.
A San Jose State victory over Ball State would cap an 8-0 season and could vault the Spartans into the top 15.
In advance of the matchup, we spent a few minutes with Joel Godett, Ball State’s Director of Broadcasting, and Ball State beat writer Jordan Guskey of The Star Press.
Here is what they said:
(Answers have been edited for length and clarity)
What are your impressions of San Jose State?
Godett: I’m more familiar than most with San Jose State, a little bit. I went to Syracuse, Greg Robinson was the head coach when I was in college. I’ve been aware a little bit because I know when they went to the Cure Bowl in 2015, Greg Robinson was the defensive coordinator, so they’ve been on my radar. But my perception is probably the common perception in that it’s one of the great stories of college football.
Guskey: San Jose State has been on a similar road as this Ball State program, considering the years that they struggled, but are now in the midst of what I imagine is one of the best seasons they’ve had in program history. A team that’s definitely on a trajectory heading upwards. A really great offense. They can throw the ball, can run the ball and they have a defense with playmakers too. A lot of different things that I’m sure kept these Ball State coaches busy over the past few days.
What’s allowed Ball State to make the leap this season?
Godett: It’s a dedication to the process and a commitment to stick to it. Let me address that from two standpoints.
Mike Neu was brought in here as the head coach five years ago and had to do all of the things you hear about. People talk about building programs, changing culture and all of those things, establishing standards. ‘Hey, this is the way that we’re gonna do it.’ Tough Cardinal and True Cardinal and those types of words get thrown around a lot. Establishing that culture of what Ball State football is going to be, and then building it up. Mike’s second year — his first recruiting class — they played 20-plus freshmen. And it was the commitment to, ‘We’re gonna build this and we’re gonna go get guys that are gonna build this from the ground up’ and understanding that that was going to take time and that was going to be painful. And that’s hard. They stayed that course. They never wavered from that course, even when that course was difficult. Ball State went three games without scoring a touchdown in 2017. Even when those paths are hard, they stayed true because they understood what the goal was and how they were going to get there.
I give credit to the administration for sticking by Mike as well and looking at the results. You could see, and the players would all tell you this too, there was little growth from ‘17 to ‘18. And then from ’18 to ’19, last year’s team was eight points and two-and-a-half minutes away from being in the MAC championship. Mike signs a contract extension in the offseason, he comes back this year. I think the team was picked fourth, but I think internally, everybody’s expectation was that they were going to win because they understood where they were in the process. They understood how close they were last year. They weren’t really 5-7. 5-7 was the record, but they were a better team than that and they understood the reasons why they were 5-7 and not 8-4, and how to correct that. And then they came out this year and did it. It was just this slow, steady, trusting the process and sticking to it and staying true that pays off in the end road.
Guskey: Early on in Neu’s tenure, they had a lot of talent, but they also were really young. They’ve dealt with injuries a lot in his tenure so that’s been a problem for them too. This year — I know (running back) Caleb Huntley got hurt part of the way through — but they had the weapons they needed to have a successful year. Whether it was Huntley at running back, then Tye Evans and Will Jones behind him. Drew Plitt is a very experienced quarterback. Receivers like Yo’Heinz Tyler, Justin Hall, Antwan Davis. Cody Rudy at fullback, he could touch the ball, make one or two really great plays out of the passing game per game. On defense, they have a lot of talent there as well. 
What they weren’t able to do last year — which is a year they could’ve gone to a bowl game — was close out some close games. Now, they’re closing out the close games. Against Toledo, they almost gave that game up, but the defense comes in and makes a stop. Against Buffalo, they shut down Patterson for the most part. It’s a culmination of getting the talent and experience that they have on this roster, combined with the fact that they were able to close out close games in a way that they weren’t able to last year.
Ball State runs the ball more than any other team in the MAC. How do they approach their run game? How much will not having Caleb Huntley (who opted out of the season to declare for the NFL draft) hurt on Thursday?
Godett: Obviously, not having Caleb Huntley is less good than having Caleb Huntley. But, at this point, he hasn’t played the last four games. Not to sound crass about it, but they’ve moved on — next man up. There’s been a growth and an adaptation process to where, I don’t think the worry going into San Jose State is, ‘What are we going to do without Caleb?’ 
It’s a balanced offensive attack and they want to establish the run for the same reasons anybody wants to. It opens up play-action pass and this team’s got an incredibly diverse set of wide receivers. If you can give them more opportunity to work, it’s a chain reaction, one leads to the other. In the Mid-American Conference championship game last week, with Jaret Patterson, who could’ve gotten Heisman votes, Tye Evans was the best running back on the field. Will Jones is a hell of a player, too. I think he’s proven that the last couple of weeks. They’re going to go do what they do and hope the chips fall in the right column at the end of the day.
Guskey: Not as much as if, say, he had played all year and then all of a sudden now they have to figure it out in a week. Caleb Huntley is one of the best running backs in the MAC, if not the nation. I think he has an NFL future ahead of him, however that may come. 
Obviously, they would rather have him on the field. But you mentioned it there, they’ve been able to show that they can still the ball and be effective on the ground without Huntley on the field. Justin Hall is getting more touches per game. He was already getting some, but now they’re going to him more that Caleb’s not there. Tye Evans has shown that he can be a feature back in the MAC. Will Jones had flashes as well. I think they’ve shown that they can still move the ball on a lot of defenses. 
Ball State is allowing the ninth-most passing yards per game in the nation. How do you envision Ball State’s secondary will fare against Nick Starkel and San Jose State’s receivers?
Godett: The thing that you have to understand about Ball State defensively is they always make the big play when they need to, regardless of what else you do over the course of the game. They have always come through with the sack, with the forced fumble, with the interception. The play that turned the Buffalo game was a strip-sack into a touchdown. A player was telling me that the defense has picked up the offense more than the offense has had to pick up the defense this year.
Antonio Phillips is a two-time all-conference corner. Buffalo didn’t really attack him at all in the MAC title game. The one time they did go at him, he picked the ball off. He has no lack of confidence over there. Amechi Uzodinma led the league in interceptions last year. Bryce Cosby is a first-team all-conference safety, incredibly cerebral player and he’s the quarterback of that defense. They’ve seen good quarterbacks this year and they’ve lived to tell the tale. You can look at statistics one way and they’ll tell one story, and you can look at statistics another way and they’ll tell another. I think the story that matters at the end of the day is they went 6-1 and made the play when they needed to. 
Guskey: There’s the potential that this could turn into a shootout if this defense doesn’t step up. Against Buffalo, Ball State was going against one of the best rushing offenses in the game this year. They were able to shut that down really outside of one run that sort of skews their numbers a bit. Otherwise, they pretty much forced them to throw the ball, which is why you saw the passing numbers be so high for Buffalo, because that’s really all they could do against Ball State’s defense.
It has the potential to be a long day for that secondary if it doesn’t step up with all the weapons that San Jose State has, with the quarterback that it has. If the Buffalo game showed anything, it’s that this defense can step up to that challenge. It’s just a matter of whether or not Antonio Phillips, Nic Jones, Bryce Cosby and others really do step up in the way Ball State needs them to. San Jose State definitely has the advantage on paper, but so did Buffalo’s running offense. We’ll see what happens.
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What does Ball State need to do to win?
Godett: Ball State has to play sound football and not make mistakes. San Jose State is the best team that Ball State has played this year. You can’t have breakdowns and you can’t hurt yourself. You can’t get penalties at bad moments. You can’t allow — Nick Starkel’s great at this — a seven-yard completion to turn into an 80-yard touchdown. Those types of things are unacceptable and they lose you games like this. You need to allow — Western Michigan was a great example of this —  a seven-yard completion and tackle it for seven yards. You can’t allow that to blow up into an explosive play. So if you continue to make teams work for it, eventually the ball is going to break your way. So you have to be just sound. 
Guskey: Similar to what it did against Buffalo, they need to force turnovers. Turnovers have been huge for this Ball State team. They started the year off struggling in creating turnovers and turning the ball over themselves. If Ball State can be in a really good position in the turnover battle, then I think it’s going to be in a great place to win this game. It has the offense that can score, it’s just a matter of if it can protect the ball. The defense, which seems at times like a bend-don’t-break sort of deal, has the potential to really get after the passer and cause issues. It’s just a matter of whether or not this defense can step up and force some turnovers and limit the big plays that San Jose State has shown itself capable of making.

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