TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Antonio Phillips returned an early interception 53 yards for a touchdown, Drew Plitt accounted for two scores and Ball State beat short-handed No. 19 San Jose State 34-13 in the Arizona Bowl on Thursday.
San Jose State (7-1, No. 22 CFP) had to play without its two coordinators and Mountain West Conference player of the year Cade Hall due to COVID-19 and other issues.
The Cardinals (7-1) took advantage, quick-hitting their way down the field on offense after Phillips’ interception for a 27-0 lead in the first quarter. The Mid-American champions bogged down in the second half but had four interceptions to win their first bowl game in 10 tries.
Already short-handed, the Spartans lost tight end Derrick Deese, Jr., the team leader with five touchdown receptions, to a neck injury on the first play from scrimmage.
Quarterback Nick Starkel injured his left knee in the second quarter but later returned wearing a brace. He threw for 268 yards and a touchdown with three interceptions for the Mountain West Conference champions.
Both teams arrived in the desert on a roll.
The Spartans, who went 1-11 just two years ago, had their best season since going 13-0 in 1939. San Jose State won its first Mountain West championship and had its first winning season since 2012.
Ball State lost its opener to Miami of Ohio, then reeled off six consecutive wins to earn its first MAC championship since 1996.
The Cardinals got off to a quick start against the short-handed Spartans.
Phillips scored on his interception when Starkel had a miscommunication with a receiver on the Spartans’ opening drive. Ball State kept rolling with its up-tempo offense, scoring on 3-yard runs by Will Jones and Tye Evans. Plitt also scored on a 1-yard, fourth-down run after Nic Jones blocked Elijah Fischer’s punt.
San Jose State finally got some momentum after Starkel was injured, but backup Nick Nash threw an interception in the end zone. Spartans kicker Matt Mercurio closed the ugly first half with a badly-missed 49-yard field goal attempt.
Plitt’s 48-yard TD pass to Yo’Heinz Tyler made it 33-0 before San Jose State finally scored on Charlie Bostic’s 99-yard kickoff return.
San Jose State’s bid for an undefeated season began to unravel before the game started and a shaky first quarter put the Spartans in too big of a hole.
Ball State started fast against the short-handed Spartans and rode it to a historic first bowl win.
San Jose State: The Spartans received good news earlier this week when Starkel announced he would return for a final college season. San Jose State will have to replace several seniors on offense, but most of the defensive starters are juniors or younger.
Ball State: The Cardinals will have to retool on offense next season after losing eight senior starters, including Plitt. Ball State also will have to replace several seniors on defense.