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Military Bowl: San Jose State aims to cap turnaround season with bowl victory

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Members of the San Jose State football team shuffled into a meeting room at the on-campus Simpkins Stadium Center on the morning of Dec. 11 with the sting of Coach Mike MacIntyre’s departure still fresh. A day earlier, MacIntyre had been introduced as the new coach at Colorado, and now the four captains gathered the team, dousing the anger and disbelief, especially among the younger players, with a heavy dose of perspective.

“We wanted everybody to understand that, hey, we can do it without him,” said captain David Quessenberry, a fifth-year offensive tackle. “We have too much talent . . . and we’ve come too far to let this affect how we’re going to play in the bowl.”

San Jose State, with two winning seasons in the past 19 years, has little recent experience as a participant in the national coaching carousel. But after leading the Spartans to their first 10-win season since 1987, MacIntyre was snapped up by Colorado and given a five-year contract that reportedly quadrupled his previous annual salary to lead a Pacific-12 reclamation project.

Ranked No. 24 in both major college football polls, San Jose State (10-2) will close a breakthrough season with Thursday’s Military Bowl against Bowling Green (8-4) at RFK Stadium. Two years removed from a 12-loss campaign, the Spartans are the first top 25 team featured in the game since it began as the EagleBank Bowl in 2008.

Defensive coordinator Kent Baer will lead San Jose State as interim head coach in what is expected to be his final game with the program before turning the reins over to former University of San Diego Coach Ron Caragher, who was hired on Dec. 17 to replace MacIntyre.

“It’s just a total turnaround,” Baer said after the Spartans finished a rainy practice at St. John’s College High School earlier this week.

After a disastrous 2010 — it went 1-12 — San Jose State built momentum under MacIntyre, a former defensive coordinator at Duke. The squad didn’t beat a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent that miserable first year.

Last year, the Spartans bumped to five wins, including a 27-24 victory over Navy that helped keep the Midshipmen out of a bowl game.

Behind junior quarterback David Fales, the Spartans started this season with a near-upset at No. 8 Stanford and defeated four bowl-eligible teams, including Navy again, to earn their first bowl berth since 2006.

The swift ascent has been well-timed as San Jose State will begin play in all sports in the Mountain West Conference next fall (the Western Athletic Conference no longer is sponsoring football).

“Oh man, it’s a whole different atmosphere around here, within the team and out on campus,” said junior linebacker Keith Smith, who started nine games on the 12-loss squad. “Now you can walk around with your chest out a little bit, knowing that you’re proud to be a Spartan.”

The dramatic improvement made MacIntyre a hot commodity on the coaching market, and when he left, Athletic Director Gene Bleymaier took a week to fill an opening that suddenly held more cachet than it had in years.

Caragher, 45, grew up in the Bay Area and attended camps at San Jose State as a teenager. At San Diego, he replaced current San Francisco 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh and led the Football Championship Subdivision Torreros to a 44-22 record in six seasons.

Lured by a rejuvenated fan base and the chance to work under fellow UCLA alumnus Bleymaier, Caragher signed a five-year contract.

“The bar was set very high there [at San Diego], too, and that’s how I like it,” Caragher said by phone. “That’s how I want it. I want the expectations in place. Now the job [at San Jose State] is to carry on this success.”

The Military Bowl had been scheduled to pit Army against the No. 8 team from the Atlantic Coast Conference.

But organizers had to look elsewhere when the Black Knights finished 2-10 and just six ACC teams ended up bowl eligible.

San Jose State won’t provide the same sort of name recognition, but the players are certainly excited to be here and to be savoring their first taste of postseason football.

After Monday’s workout, several Spartans marveled at the bowl gift bags that included an Apple iPad mini, while senior safety Cullen Newsome showed his spirit, arriving with a version of the bowl logo shaved into the side of his head.

“Twenty years from now, look back, we’re going to be able to say, ‘We’re the ones that made the difference,’” junior linebacker Vince Buhagiar said. “We’re the ones that started it.”

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