San Jose State was unable to play on its home field most of the season due to COVID-19 restrictions and faced scrutiny over its travel plans to play Ball State in the Arizona Bowl.
The 19th-ranked Spartans have shrugged off everything that's come before them and kept on winning.
“This is such a unique time and unique situation," San Jose State coach Brent Brennan said. "Everybody is doing the best they can.”
It's worked out pretty well for the Spartans.
A team that went 1-11 just two seasons ago, the Spartans (7-0) have their best record since going 13-0 in 1939. San Jose State won its first Mountain West Conference title and first outright title since 1990 by beating Boise State 34-30 in the championship game.
The Spartans also were ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2012 and carry an eight-game winning streak into Thursday's game after closing the 2019 season with a win.
Not bad for a team that had to move six hours away just to hold training camp.
“This team has been resilient the entire time," Spartans quarterback Nick Starkel said. “No matter what happens, no matter if we can’t practice at home or we have to leave and play a game in Hawaii or Vegas, we just say, ‘All right, let’s go.’”
San Jose State isn't the only team in the desert having a breakthrough year.
Ball State (6-1) made a steady climb during its first four seasons under coach Mike Neu, increasing its wins from two in 2017 to five last season.
The Cardinals lost their 2020 opener to Miami of Ohio, but reeled off six straight wins for their first winning season since 2013. Ball State beat then-No. 23 Buffalo 38-28 to win its first Mid-American championship since 1996.
“Our team, our staff and the locker room are special. We worked hard for this,” Neu said. “Lots of growing pains over the years, but we just continue to get better.”
San Jose State got some good news this week when Starkel announced he would return for another season.
Starkel started his career at Texas A&M, transferred to Arkansas and ended up at San Jose State as a graduate transfer. He had a superb first season at San Jose State, throwing for 1,906 yards and 16 TDs with four interceptions.
Starkel completed 65% of his passes and threw for 453 yards and three TDs in the win over Boise State.
He's also the only San Jose State player to have participated in a bowl game after throwing for 499 yards and four TDs as a freshman at Texas A&M in a loss to Wake Forest in the 2017 Belk Bowl.
Ball State linebacker Brandon Martin has a knack for getting to the football.
The junior was named co-MAC defensive player of the year after averaging 12.1 tackles per game, third in the FBS. He had 6.5 tackles for loss, including one sack, and had 15 tackles in a win against Eastern Michigan.
Martin and fellow linebacker Jaylin Thomas (10.6 tackles per game) will likely be busy again on Thursday.
The Spartans have been adept at getting to the quarterback this season.
San Jose State had 22 sacks in 2020, including seven in a win against UNLV. The Spartans tied for the fifth-most sacks in the Football Bowl Subdivision despite being limited to seven games and their 3.14 sacks per game is 15th nationally.
San Jose State had 17 sacks in 12 games last season.
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