During spring ball before the COVID-madness, Spartan offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven and head coach Brent Brennan looked at each other with kid-giddiness after both recognized they had something really special.
Fast-forward 10 months through trial and travel, through pounding wins, and through an unwavering bond, the Spartans left no doubt they earned the Mountain West Championship over Boise State in a prototypical grinding, relentless, end-to-end style.
The 34-20 win is the Spartans first Mountain West title. Their last conference title was 1990. It was improbable for most but most probable for those in the Sparta orbit.
The Spartans never lost the lead against Boise showing all phases of their game when they needed, adjusting as warranted, and keeping on point through the typical ups-and-downs. The biggest was holding off a potential momentum swing off of Boise State’s all-world Avery Williams 69-yard punt return.
Going into the game, the Spartans knew their passing game led by QB Nick Starkel had to be there and Starkel delivered with full honors going 32-52, 453 yards in the air, 3 passing touchdowns, and zero interceptions.
“Nick Starkel was brilliant tonight,” declared Brennan. “We were able to get to the top-of-the-mountain with his leadership. He was clearly the offensive MVP tonight and I can’t say enough about him.”
The climb-the-mountain mantra has been an emphasis over the last week since Arizona started a head coaching search putting Brennan in their sights. Brennan has brushed it aside and rightly so.
“I couldn’t be more excited for this team and this university,” said Brennan. “And I can’t get over our defense! We’re all dancing, hugging, and smiling and I wish you all were here!”
Brennan added, “It was a tremendous showing to win against an opponent like Boise State. It was an incredible collaborative effort. Everyone from the top down contributed in such a positive way, especially with what we needed to do with all the protocols. That has to be commendable in its own right.”
Quick Game Summary
First-quarter: Spartan receiver Tre Walker’s 55-yard catch-and-run TD (Walker finished with 7 catches, 137 yards), Cade Hall’s two sacks, and the Spartan defense ramping up. 7-3 Spartans.
Second-quarter: Spartan kicker Matt Mercurio’s four field goals. 19-6 Spartans.
Third-quarter: Broncos stop the Spartans on a 4th & 2 and Williams 69-yard TD punt return gain momentum. 19-13 Spartans.
Fourth-quarter: Spartans finish as they’ve done all year pulling away with a pin-the-ears-back defense and timely running (when none existed all game for either team). A 34-20 win.
It took all 498 yards of total offense led by Starkel to do the trick, convincingly, though the core signature was the Spartan defense holding Boise to 233 yards of total offense.
“I’m speechless right now,” said Starkel. “I think I have all the tears out of me after coach B said the team was going to follow me and I was going to deliver.”
Starkel also broke Derek Carr’s MWC championship passing game record when Carr was at Fresno State.
“Our tight-end Dominic Mazotti came up to me and said ‘you just broke Derek Carr’s record!’ Starkel said. “I was going to hit Dominic for telling me that with three minutes still left in the game, but it’s all good!”
Starkel added, “We knew we were going to have to throw the football. And we know our passing attack had to do it.”
Asked what he’d say to Sparta after winning the MWC Championship, “Get used to it. We’re setting a standard here to play like this every year.”
The better team did win tonight without a doubt.
Even through all of Boise State’s woes this season, they were the top-scoring team with the best passing defense, and rightly so.
But the Spartans showed up as expected and hopefully, folks can look at their entire body of work this year on-and-off the field to appreciate it.
When you either love your team so much or you’re just not ready to accept a once lowly team just mano-a-mano’d your team AND you still get a perfect championship effort by two great teams, it’s always good for the conference.
The bigger picture is still important in the long run, as the Spartans celebrate and find their ways back to their families in time for the holidays.