WASHINGTON (AP) — Considering that Bowling Green was 2-10 only two years ago, it shows how far the program has come that this season's disappointing end came in a bowl game.
It was disappointment all the same.
The Falcons couldn't match San Jose State's prolific passing game, and the defense couldn't quite do enough to stop David Fales, who overcame the wind and cold at RFK Stadium in the No. 24 Spartans' 29-20 win in the Military Bowl on Thursday.
The Falcons (8-5) led twice in the second half, the last time at 20-19 after John Pettigrew's 1-yard run with 10:26 remaining capped a rare sustained drive of 68 yards. Later in the fourth quarter, Fales led the drive that set up Austin Lopez's 27-yard field goal with 4:43 to play, and De'Leon Eskridge's 1-yard run with 2:34 left provided the insurance.
"Two years ago we were 2-10. We were awful," Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson said. "A year we made a nice step that we went from being awful to average. I felt this was a team that could make that next step and we won three more games. ... We found a way to get from five to eight. Now we have to find a way to get from five to 11."
Improving the offense next season is a good place to start. While Fales, who led the nation in completion percentage during the regular season, completed 33 of 43 passes for 395 yards and two touchdowns, the Falcons managed only 264 total yards. Bowling Green's Matt Schilz completed 16 of 35 passes for 159 yards.
"We didn't generate enough yards, didn't generate enough points," Clawson said. "At some point you have to score points to win games. We struggled with that all year. When we played the better teams on our schedule, that's where we came up short."
Then there is the big picture. Not only did Bowling Green struggle in 2010, it started this campaign 1-3 before finishing the regular season with seven wins in eight games.
"We had a good year with a few opportunities to make it a great year," Clawson said. "Today was one of those opportunities, but we didn't make enough plays."
The bowl was the first for the Falcons since 2009, Clawson's first season at the school.
"We kind of got spoiled because we really didn't know at that point when we made it to the bowl what it takes to be a really good team," senior right tackle Jordan Roussos said. "When we went 2-10, we had in mind what we wanted to get back to. It's been a wonderful ride."
San Jose State (11-2), in the national rankings for the first time since 1975, capped the year with a seven-game winning streak for its first 11-win season since 1940, a similarly remarkable turnaround for a program that was 1-12 two years ago. The Spartans won with interim coach Kent Baer in charge after Mike MacIntyre left earlier this month for a bigger payday at Colorado.
The Falcons' defense allowed only 15.8 points per game in the regular season — ninth best among FBS schools — and did a decent job against a San Jose State team that was averaging 35.3 points.
Fales hit Kyle Nunn for a 33-yard score to give the Spartans a first-quarter lead and found Chandler Jones for an 18-yard reception that put San Jose State back in front, 19-13, in the third quarter.
Bowling Green retook the lead on Pettigrew's touchdown, but Fales went 7 for 10 on a 68-yard drive that got well within range for Lopez.
"That's the best passing offense we've faced all year," Clawson said. "Even we held him down, he was still completing balls."
The Spartans then forced a turnover that led to Eskridge's clinching touchdown.
The Military Bowl was supposed to pit Army against an ACC team, but Army isn't bowl-eligible and the ACC didn't have enough bowl-eligible schools to fulfill its bowl tie-ins. As a result, there was little excitement for the game in the nation's capital. The upper deck of RFK Stadium was virtually empty during the second half of the MAC-WAC matchup, and the attendance was announced as 17,835.