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1987: The Last Time Eastern Michigan Played San Jose State

It’s Been 35 years. Wow, time flies.

Coach Harkema would be the Eastern Michigan coach to win the MAC and the bowl game.
Ann Arbor District Library Archives

It is kind of interesting that the Eastern Michigan Eagles will play the San Jose State Spartans again. (It’s also certainly something which feels intentional given ESPN’s love of dramatic match-ups.)

The last time they played was in 1987, during what was probably the magical season for Eastern Michigan University.

The 1987 California Bowl would be the second time that Eastern Michigan appeared in a bowl game but the first (and so far) only time that Eastern Michigan would win the Mid-American Conference at season’s end. Going in the game, EMU was 9-2, with losses against Akron and Central Michigan. They would finish regular season by beating Bowling Green at Rynearson Stadium by a score of 38-18.

As a bit of a side note, this was my freshman year at Eastern Michigan. I got the freshman pack of season tickets, so I saw the home games. The last game against Bowling Green felt extra special. You could feel that Eastern Michigan was going to win that game and around the third quarter, the fans in the stadium started shouting “goal post” as they intended to take the goal posts down.

I think it was special for other reasons, Eastern Michigan football was in a bad place. They were rumors about about being kicked out of the MAC after years of terrible records. Coach Harkema started his career at Eastern Michigan with a 1-10 record but he was able to improve over the next four years.

This was at a time when bowl games were sparse. For many conferences, it was win your conference or stay home. At the time, the MAC had an agreement with the Pacific Coast Athletic Association, where the winners of each conference would play in the California Bowl at Bulldog Stadium in Fresno, California.

Eastern Michigan was the heavy underdog in that game. They were facing the 10-1 San Jose State Spartans. The Spartans just won their second PCAA title in a row and the third for the decade. They were favored to win by 17.5 points.

After some impressive road wins, Eastern Michigan had earned the reputation as road warriors, so going into a hostile venue was not a challenge for them. The challenge for me was to find a place where I could go watch the game. This was before they had cable in the dorms and the game was on ESPN. After some roaming around a snowy Ypsilanti, I found that Cross Street Station had a TV and they were showing the game. This would be the first of many memories at that place.

Eastern Michigan started the scoring with a drive capped by a one-yard run by Bob Foster to bring the score to 7-0 after the extra point. The Spartans responded with a drive of their own that was finished by a six-yard run from Kenny Jackson. The extra point would tie the score at 7-7. Eastern Michigan answered with a field goal and another Bob Foster touchdown to make the score 17-7. The Spartans would finish the half with another touchdown of their own to come within three points.

San Jose State scored late in the third quarter to make the score 21-17. Eastern Michigan returned the favor with a drive that was capped by a 15-yard run from Gary Patton to make the score 23-21 after a missed extra point. The Spartans took the lead back after a 16-yard run by James Saxon to make the score 27-23 after a failed two-point attempt. Eastern Michigan scored again with 3:59 left in the game after Craig Ostrander caught a 32-yard pass from Ron Adams for the touchdown. The extra point made the score 30-27, and Eastern Michigan held on to win the game.

Eastern Michigan’s running back Gary Patton would be named the game’s MVP after rushing for 130 yards. Eastern Michigan’s defense was able to hold the Spartans to 81 yards rushing in this game.

This would be Eastern Michigan’s last bowl game until they were invited to the Bahamas Bowl in 2016. It was also the only time that Eastern Michigan won the Mid American Conference. Coach Harkema’s next two seasons had winning records but the team wwould not receive postseason invitations.

EMU would enjoy their last winning season for a while in 1995, not crossing the .500 threshold until their 2016 season, when the Eagles went 7-5. 1987 was the last time that Eastern Michigan won at least eight games until this season. This was also Eastern Michigan’s only bowl win.

Needless to say, I have high hopes for this game.

California Bowl MVP running back Gary Patton.
Lorain Historical Society