How San Jose State leaned on each other for first Mountain West crown

In the bowels of Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, San Jose State

In the bowels of Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, San Jose State — a full-time football team turned part-time choir — locked arms and recited the Bill Withers classic, “Lean on Me.”

“Lean on me,” the team sang, “when you’re not strong.

“And I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on.”

The Spartans had donned T-shirts and caps that read, “Mountain West Champions,” their reward for beating Boise State 34-20 in the conference’s title game.

They pulled out phones to capture the memory, another keepsake from a journey that reached new heights as San Jose State improved to 7-0 for the first time in 81 years.

Given all that the Spartans have been through, the song choice was appropriate. Few college football teams, if any, had more thrown their way than San Jose State.

No one would have blamed the Spartans if they’d faltered, but true to the melodies they sang, they leaned on one another time and again.

“It was absolute magic,” coach Brent Brennan said about the postgame singing. “It was incredible.”

San Jose State’s bond had strengthened by the Humboldt State experience, by the canceled games, by the unpredictable schedule, by the nomadic status. Football was just an opportunity to showcase the strength of the team’s connection.

The season isn’t over. San Jose State has a date with Ball State in the Arizona Bowl at Arizona Stadium in Tucson on New Year’s Eve. When that game comes around, the Spartans will know where to turn.

Here are five takeaways from San Jose State’s historic win: 

Starkel’s fireworks

In the second half of the season, Nick Starkel, an all-Mountain West second-team quarterback, almost seemed to take a backseat to an improving run game. Over the previous three games, San Jose State averaged 221.3 rushing yards, including 288 against Hawaii.

Boise State’s run defense, however, wasn’t having it.

Like last week against Nevada, San Jose State only had four rushing yards at the break, but there would be no second-half explosion from either Kairee Robinson or Tyler Nevens.

So, San Jose State turned to the veteran Starkel, who played arguably the best game of his long collegiate career. The graduate transfer from Arkansas threw for 453 yards, completing 32 of 52 passes, and three touchdowns to break Derek Carr’s record for most passing yards in the conference’s championship game. 

Starkel’s best throw came at the most crucial juncture.

After Boise State star Avery Williams returned a punt for a touchdown in the third quarter, cutting San Jose State’s lead to 19-13, Starkel threw a perfect dime to Isaiah Hamilton for a 30-yard touchdown. Hamilton, to his credit, managed to keep a foot in-bounds.

Starkel connected with 10 receivers, including the seldom-used Shamar Garrett, Jermaine Braddock and Andre Crump. 

“They did a lot of different things on defense,” Starkel said. “It wasn’t just one or two guys that we liked the matchups with. It was based on what they were doing defensively.”

Run Defense

The biggest improvement San Jose State has made is defending the run. Last season, the Spartans had the worst run defense in the Mountain West. This season, they’ve held run-heavy opponents in check.

The Spartans held the Broncos to just 12 rushing yards on 24 attempts, by far the fewest rushing yards San Jose State has allowed in a single game this season.

With the run game a non-factor, San Jose State forced Hank Bachmeier to throw quite a bit. The Boise State quarterback couldn’t consistently get into a rhythm, completing 20 of 41 passes for 221 yards.

Granted, Boise State was without star running back George Holani, who has missed most of the season. Late in the ballgame, the Broncos also lost receiver Khalil Shakir, who constantly commands attention.

“Our defense kept finding ways to get them off the field,” Brennan said. “That was just incredible.”

Matt Mercurio

In the second quarter, placekicker Matt Mercurio was San Jose State’s saving grace.

The Spartans made four trips to the red zone in the period but failed to find the end zone. Enter Mercurio, who knocked down four field goals and was responsible for all 12 of San Jose State’s points that quarter.

None of Mercurio’s attempts were particularly difficult — the longest was 36 yards — but his work helped San Jose State build a double-digit lead.

Mercurio became the fifth kicker in NCAA history to make four field goals in a single quarter, according to San Jose State’s sports information director Lawrence Fan.

Mercurio, an all-Mountain West honorable mention pick, hasn’t been called upon too often aside from extra points. But he’s made nine of 10 field-goal tries this season.

“I actually had a little premonition before this game,” Mercurio said. “I just had a feeling that there were going to be a lot of field goals I was going to have to kick. Mentally, coming into this game, I was fully prepared.” 

Limited Nick Nash

While Starkel’s fingerprints were all over this game, backup Nick Nash, whom the Spartans have folded into their offense in running situations, was a non-factor.

Nash’s only appearance came late in the fourth quarter. On first-and-goal from Boise State’s five-yard line, he ran on a keeper but fumbled. He dove on top of the ball to prevent a turnover and lost a yard.

Nash’s exclusion from the offense was especially curious given how badly the Spartans struggled in short-yardage situations. San Jose State converted just five of 16 third-down attempts, several of which Nash could’ve potentially helped convert with his power running.

Nash’s role has been limited in recent weeks. Last weekend against Nevada, he only had two rushing attempts, failing to pick up a single yard in either.