SAN JOSE – Instead of feeling a sense of gratitude on Thanksgiving Day, San Jose State quarterback Nick Starkel summed up the end of his collegiate football career with two simple words.
“It sucks,” he said.
Last year’s Mountain West title and perfect regular season must seem like a mirage after the Spartans finished with an identical record to the pre-pandemic 2019 campaign.
Thursday afternoon’s futile 40-9 loss to rival Fresno State at CEFCU Stadium is a setback for the growth of the program under fifth-year head coach Brent Brennan.
The Spartans (5-7, 3-5 Mountain West) returned 20 of 22 starters on offense and defense, but couldn’t replicate last season’s magic and failed to qualify for back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1985-86 after suffering consecutive blowouts at home.
“The biggest missed opportunity for us, besides having the chance to beat Fresno, is just not having a chance to go to the postseason again – and that’s crushing for me,” Brennan said. “I love this team, I love these seniors. It’s just a hard day, hard year.”
He added: “I’m just devastated for them.”
The Bay Area native, though, sees a silver lining.
“When we started it was bad, right?” said Brennan, who only won three times during his first two years at the helm. “When we started I would’ve begged for 5-7. Now I’m pissed off and so are they. Things are changing and that’s good.”
San Jose State running back Tyler Nevens, one of the players to participate in the Senior Day pregame ceremony, leaves with no regrets.
Speaking from his heart after a frustrating loss in the Battle for the Valley Trophy, he noted the blame belonged inside the SJSU locker room.
“Thinking about a game like this, a rivalry game, we knew the importance of it,” Nevens said. “In front of our home crowd, trying to finish strong, we just weren’t being honest with ourselves as to who we are as a team out there.”
The pass rush disappeared down the stretch, with Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener torching the secondary for 340 yards and four touchdowns.
The offense was held out of the end zone for a second time this season, with three first-half trips into the red zone resulting in only field goals.
Starkel – 19-of-42 for 260 yards – and his likely successor Nick Nash each lost fumbles in the first half as turnovers continued to plague the team.
Over the span of 12 games, the Spartans lost the turnover battle nine times and only finished with a positive margin once.
“I think it just comes down to attention to detail and discipline,” Starkel said. “We brought back a lot of the same guys, a lot of the same tools, a lot of the same weapons, and in the end when it comes down to it on Saturdays we just didn’t get it done enough.”
“It’s incredibly disappointing for me and my staff and our players and everyone who believes in San Jose State football and what we’re doing here,” Brennan said. “My job is to get us ready to win and get us ready to play to our expectations for the season. And we didn’t do that.”
Injuries also played a factor.
Cornerback Nehemiah Shelton and special-teams standout Shamar Garrett didn’t play each of the past two games. Center Kyle Hoppe was kept together with “bubble gum and duct tape,” Brennan said.
Starkel left the game for a moment in the third quarter after a roughing-the-passer penalty appeared to reinjure his non-throwing left shoulder.
“I’m not going to disclose any medical stuff, but I said, ‘I’m not going out like this,’” Starkel said. “If I could only fight with one arm, then I was going to fight with one arm. If I had to jump one leg, then fine, that’s how it’s going to be. Because these guys deserve me to fight until the end. … This whole team, this whole family, we fight until the end.”
Conservative play-calling didn’t give San Jose State an opportunity on its last gasp.
Down 26-9 midway through the third quarter, Brennan opted to punt after Nevens was stuffed on third-and-short at midfield.
“I personally believe that stopped the game right then and there,” Nevens said. “If you can’t get first down on third-and-inches, I don’t know if you can score six points.”
On the ensuing drive, Fresno State (9-3, 6-2) ran a trick play as the final dagger.
Fresno State can qualify for the conference championship game if No. 22 San Diego State loses to Boise State on Friday.
Meanwhile, San Jose State is now reduced to the role of spectator until next fall.
“It’s the worst feeling in the world,” Starkel said. “We don’t go out there and work our tails off, fight for each other, get up early, do all that stuff to do that. I promise you that. However anyone is upset about that, I guarantee you that nobody is more upset than the players.”