San Jose State coach Brent Brennan and Ball State coach Mike Neu have never coached against each other because they have primarily operated in two different regions of the country throughout their coaching careers.
They have achieved similar success, however, with programs that will take part in the Offerpad Arizona Bowl at Arizona Stadium on Thursday at noon, Tucson time. Brennan has coached the Spartans to their first Mountain West title and Neu guided the Cardinals to their first Mid-American Conference title since 1996.
CBS will televise the game nationally with its top crew calling the action — Brad Nessler, Gary Danielson and Jamie Erdahl. No fans are allowed in the stadium due to COVID-19 restrictions recommended by the Pima County Health Department.
“I’ve been following him since he took over there,” said Brennan of Neu, who was hired by Ball State, his alma mater, in 2016. “And there’s a really similar path to ours. I think this is a really fascinating matchup, if you look to where he was in 2017 and 18. There’s some real similarities there. What they’ve been able to do this year has been awesome.”
— Offerpad Arizona Bowl (@theARIZONABOWL) December 30, 2020
The 19th-ranked Spartans (7-0) were 3-22 in Brennan’s first two seasons in 2017 and 2018. After going 5-7 last season, his team is unbeaten and Mountain West champions for the first time in program history.
Brennan is a noted coaching commodity after becoming a finalist for the Eddie Robinson national coach of the year award. He was reported to be one of Arizona’s prominent candidates before president Robert C. Robbins and athletic director Dave Heeke hired Jedd Fisch last week.
“It’s really a reflection on what’s happening here at San Jose State,” said Brennan, who often used the phrase of “Climbing the Mountain” with the Spartans when asked about the Arizona job by the media. “It’s a reflection of what’s happening with the players and what this team has accomplished, which has just been, in my opinion, nothing short of exceptional and so it’s pretty cool to be a part of that.”
Neu did not have more than four wins his first three seasons, but last year, the Cardinals went 5-7 and they are 6-1 this season.
“(Playing in the Arizona Bowl) is a tremendous opportunity for our program,” Neu said. “A lot of hard work has to be done facing a great opponent in San Jose State. We’re really looking forward to it. A lot a lot of good preparation lies ahead.”
The next best thing to being in Arizona Stadium is watching the 2020 Offerpad Arizona Bowl at one of four safe, socially distanced watch parties! Thanks to @BarrioBrewing for bringing our football family together on game day. It’s game week! pic.twitter.com/B2w1vICb4d
— Offerpad Arizona Bowl (@theARIZONABOWL) December 28, 2020
Neu said that preparation included becoming hydrated to better handle Tucson’s warmer weather than Muncie, Ind., this time of year. The last time Ball State traveled this far west was in 1993 to play in the Las Vegas Bowl when Neu was the starting quarterback.
“The first thing when we found out (when the bowl matchup was announced) we saw that it was 76 degrees in Tucson,” Neu said. “The first thing we have to communicate with our young men is hydration. That starts now.”
The forecast for Tucson at noon on Thursday is partly cloudy with a high of 62 degrees. In Muncie, the forecast is mostly cloudy with a high slightly above freezing at 35.
San Jose State features quarterback Nick Starkel, who completed 32 of 52 passes for 453 yards and three touchdowns in the Mountain West title win over Boise State last week. He broke former Fresno State star Derek Carr’s championship record of 404 yards passing set in 2013 in win against Utah State.
College Football might be tired of me, but I’m not tired of College Football! pic.twitter.com/aNlvspqTk8
— Nicholas Starkel (@NickStarkel) December 29, 2020
“Nick has put up a huge year,” said Neu, who was a quarterback coach with the New Orleans Saints before his hire at Ball State. “We’ll have a lot of tape here to study and put a great game plan together and go take on that challenge.”
Ball State quarterback Drew Pitt has also had a productive season passing for 1,937 yards while completing 152 out of 232 pass attempts in only seven games. He has 16 touchdown passes and six interceptions.
Ball State Notes
— Ball State won the MAC West Division for the first time since 2008 and the overall MAC championship for the first time since 1996.
— The MAC was the first FBS conference to postpone its football season because of concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the last to announce its return.
— Ball State has won six straight games since losing the opener to Miami (Ohio) on Nov. 4.
“We were on a mission to get ourselves to Detroit (for the MAC championship), and that was such a great feeling when that clock hit zero,” Neu said. “To have that celebration with our team in the locker room was special. We’ve worked hard for this … Our next goal that lies ahead is to win the first bowl game in the history of our program.”
We aren’t finished! One more. #1AAT
— Ball State Football (@BallStateFB) December 31, 2020
— Ball State is relishing being nearly a 10-point underdog against San Jose State.
“Last year we were at home watching people play bowl games, we were at home watching conference championships,” running back Tye Evans said. “This was the year of, ‘Hey, we’re not doing that anymore. We don’t want to go home early and sit and watch people play football. We want to continue to play football as long as we can.'”
— The only Pac-12 school Ball State has played in its history is Washington State with the 1994 game at Martin Stadium at Pullman, Wash. The Cardinals, a Mid-American Conference team, competed well against the Cougars, losing 16-14, as Reuben Mayes rushed for 201 yards with Jim Walden as coach.
The only time Ball State has ventured into California was to play in the 1989 Cal Raisin Bowl in which the Cardinals lost 27-6 to Fresno State at the Bulldogs’ stadium in Fresno.
Neu was the starting quarterback in the 1993 Las Vegas Bowl when the Cardinals lost to Utah State 42-33, although he generated a late comeback try with 16 fourth-quarter points.
— The game against the Spartans is the Cardinals’ 10th bowl game overall. They are 0-8-1 in bowls with a loss to Arkansas State in the GoDaddy Bowl following the 2013 season as the most recent setback.
“It’s going to be battle. Great team, they’ve done a tremendous job,” Neu said of San Jose State. “It’s a great challenge. Our guys are chomping at the bit. Obviously, we haven’t won a bowl game. So it’s another tremendous challenge that this group has to be so focused to try to make sure we take advantage of our opportunity.”
— Although Neu said he had never been to Tucson, he shares a background with two individuals who are well-known here.
Some scenes from today’s @theARIZONABOWL activities with @BallStateFB. The big game with San Jose State is Thursday, December 31 at noon. The game will be broadcast live on CBS. pic.twitter.com/4G2xQ60JG2
— Mike Feder (@MikeFeder) December 30, 2020
Tucson sports personality Mike Feder was the executive director of the Arena Football League’s New Orleans VooDoo in 2004 when Neu started his coaching career. They worked together in 2004 and 2005. Feder has served as a host of the Cardinals since their arrival on Tuesday.
Former Arizona offensive line coach Kyle DeVan had the same role on Neu’s staff at Ball State. DeVan, a former Oregon State and NFL lineman, became Arizona’s offensive line coach in 2019.
“I still maintain a close relationship with him and we communicate on a regular basis,” Neu said. “He’s bragged about how awesome Tucson is so I’m really looking forward to coming out and enjoy having this experience and this opportunity.”
DeVan became an offensive line assistant with the Saints in 2015 after his NFL career concluded and Neu was the quarterback coach working with Drew Brees at the time.
BALL STATE’S ALL-MAC SELECTIONS
MAC Co-Defensive Player of the Year
Brandon Martin, R-Jr., ILB
All-MAC First Team
Bryce Cosby, Sr., SAF
Anthony Ekpe, Grad, OLB
Justin Hall, Sr., WR
Brandon Martin, R-Jr., ILB
All-MAC Second Team
Christian Albright, Sr., OLB
Curtis Blackwell, Sr., OL
Antonio Phillips, Sr., CB
Drew Plitt, R-Sr., QB
Nathan Snyder, Sr., P
All-MAC Third Team
Caleb Huntley, Sr., RB
Jaylin Thomas, R-Sr., ILB
Yo’Heinz Tyler, Jr., WR
San Jose State Notes
— San Jose State is playing in its 11th bowl game and is making its first
appearance in a bowl since winning the 2015 AutoNation Cure Bowl against Georgia State. The Spartans have a 7-3 bowl record.
— This is the Spartans’ first winning season since 2012 when the team finished with an 11-2 record under Mike MacIntyre, who went on to coach at Colorado. Since then, the 2013 team with a 6-6 record was the only San José State team at the .500 mark.
— This San Jose State team is the fourth in school history to be ranked in the top 20 of an Associated Press college football poll. The 1939, 1975 and 2012 teams also were ranked at one point during the season.
Head Coach Brent Brennan named George Munger Coach Of The Year semifinalist 🏅
— San José State Football 🏆 (@SanJoseStateFB) December 25, 2020
— QB Nick Starkel can claim wins as a starter at Texas A&M, Arkansas and San Jose State. Starkel is the first San Jose State quarterback to win in his first start since Blake Jurich in a 42-10 win over North Dakota in 2014. Starkel has bowl experience: As a freshman at Texas A&M under former Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin, he threw for 499 yards and four touchdowns in a 55-52 loss to Wake Forest in the 2017 Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. He played at Arkansas last season before transferring to San Jose State.
— Brennan, 47, first coached at San Jose State from 2005 to 2009 under legendary Arizona coach Dick Tomey, whom Brennan calls his “football dad,” and then 2010 under MacIntyre.
A graduate assistant under Tomey at Arizona during the tumultuous 2000 season, Tomey’s last as head coach with the Wildcats, Brennan coached at Oregon State from 2011 to 2016 before taking on his first head coaching job with San Jose State in 2017.
— San Jose State’s players have bought into Brennan’s sayings, many learned from Tomey, and his forthright and congenial manner with them.
He said his two favorite Tomeyisms are “The harder it gets, the better we play” and “Football is not complicated, people are.”
“Coach Tomey is more than my football dad, he is a really important man to me,” Brennan said. “I think about Coach every day. I think he would have loved what this team has been through.
“He would love the part of the challenge that COVID-19 presented teams. He would have really ate that up and flourished in that space. I use a lot of his phrases. I talk about him all the time. He’s always been a real point of reference for me.”
SAN JOSE STATE’S ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST AWARDS
Brent Brennan, Coach of the Year
Nick Starkel, Quarterback, 2nd team
Cade Hall, Defensive Player of the Year
Tre Walker, Wide Receiver, 2nd team
Bailey Gaither, Wide Receiver, 1st team
Tre Jenkins, Safety, 2nd team
Jack Snyder, Offensive Tackle, 1st team
Derrick Deese, Jr., Tight End, honorable mention
Viliami Fehoko, Defensive Line, 1st team
Matt Mercurio, Placekicker, honorable mention
Cade Hall, Defensive Line, 1st team
Tre Webb, Safety, honorable mention
Kyle Harmon, Linebacker, 1st team
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.