Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Thoughts of Portland State and Good Omens

If you're looking for good omens for Idaho State's football game with Portland State this Saturday at PGE Park, here are two: the Bengals' last win came against the Vikings last year in Pocatello; and when the Bengals owned the nation's longest losing streak, it broke that streak in 1980 against -- you got it -- Portland State. The Vikings were coached by Mouse Davis back then -- the same Mouse Davis who is now the PSU offensive coordinator, and he's still running the run-and-shoot (although he doesn't have Neil Lomax at QB this time around).

That 1980 game between the Bengals and Vikings not only broke the Bengals' 19-game losing streak, but it also officially signalled the beginning of a new era in the Big Sky. PSU had been throwing the football all over the place for a couple of years, but the Vikings were still a Division II program then. When Dave Kragthorpe came to Pocatello, he brought the BYU wide-open attack to the Big Sky. The league was never the same, and as we all know now in these days of the spread offense, even the "big boys" of college football are throwing the football.

There's another notable from that 59-33 ISU win in 1980 -- it forced Bengal officials to move up the starting time of football games. I was working the sports desk at the Idaho State Journal that night, and cursing as the game ran on and on, and our midnight copy deadline was fast approaching. I don't think the game was over until well after 11 p.m., and ISU officials realized they couldn't start games at 7 p.m. in the new "passing era" of Bengal football.

Saturday's game will match up two teams that either don't try to run the football, or haven't done it very effectively. The Vikings average less than 16 rushing yards per game and 1.0 yards per carry. Idaho State is only slightly more effective, with the Bengals putting up 70.4 yards per carry, a 2.4 yard per carry average. And yet, why do I think the team that has the most success running the football will win? Well, for starters we all know ISU has struggled defensively against the run this year, and the Vikings will be tempted to run those traps and draws at least a little bit more often against the Bengals. And the Vikings haven't exactly been stout against the run themselves, giving up almost 173 yards a game, a 4.3 yard per carry average. The Bengals certainly are more disposed mentally to try to take advantage of that opportunity.

One thing I'll be watching on Saturday is the play of true freshman DE Kevin Whimpey, who burned his redshirt last week against NAU, and got in on half-a-sack in his collegiate debut. Does anybody LOOK more like a football player than the 6-4, 235-pounder out of Lone Peak, Utah? Well, maybe his twin brother, Kyle, a 6-6, 260-pound offensive lineman who also saw his first action last Saturday. The Whimpeys are both departing for LDS missions in December, to different assignments in California. ISU Coach John Zamberlin is hoping they'll each get enough action in the remainder of this season to whet their appetites to return to the Bengal program in two years. Neither is listed as a starter for Saturday, but Kevin will definitely get plenty of opportunities to rush PSU QB Drew Hubel, who threw the football 73 times against Eastern Washington earlier this year.

I also expect to see plenty of Bengal DBs on the field Saturday. Think nickels (five DBs, two LBs) and dimes (six DBs and one LB), when you're thinking about what may constitute the Bengal "base defense" against the Vikings.

On to Basketball: I spent Friday night in Reed Gym, watching the Bengals' men's team in its first official basketball practice. JC transfer guard Kal Bay wasn't there, unfortunately, because a close friend of his passed away and he went to the funeral services. Our thoughts are with Kal and his friend's family. Even without Kal at the practice, the Bengals had a lot more healthy, athletic bodies than they've had in recent years. In fact, Coach Joe O'Brien's most difficult decisions are going to be 1) who to redshirt; and 2) who will constitute the eight- to nine-man rotation once Big Sky play begins.

It's funny, a lot of us sports fans obsess over the newcomers, because we're always intrigued by the possibilities. It's that "new kid in town" syndrome. But I'm here to tell you that if Idaho State is going to win the Big Sky Conference championship this year, it will be because of the returnees from last year. In watching practice, for example, you can't help but notice the leadership role of Matt Stucki. He virtually takes over practice at times, moving the newcomers around on offense, telling them to get back on defense, and just generally acting like a man who has been in the program for six years. Donnie Carson looks in great shape, down to 6 percent body fat, I'm told. Austin Kilpatrick, who got his vision problem corrected at the end of last season, nailed three straight 3-pointers from the longer line in practice on Friday. Even Lucas Steijn, who struggled mightily in his first season as a JC transfer last year, has put on some good weight.

The newcomers, meanwhile, spent a lot of time Friday night just figuring out where to go in the offense. It generally takes JC kids the better part of their first season to get comfortable in a new program -- usually around the middle of conference season, the light starts to go on for them. That's not to say that kids like Felix Caspari and Davidas Busma won't be playing important roles early, but they will not be immune to the Juco adjustment period. They will have to learn the hard way that you have to play hard all the time, you have to play physically all the time, and you have to execute the offense -- all the time, at the D-1 level. Kids who "think" they played hard in junior college are going to find out what competing is really all about.

I don't think playing hard all the time is going to be a problem for Caspari, by the way. I'm told by Bengal coaches that the Brazilian import was recruited to be the "energy guy" to replace the spark that the departed Logan Kinghorn brought to the program. Much like Logan, they tell me, Caspari won't dazzle you with skills, but will quietly put up numbers every night. It will be fun to watch his development, as well as that of Busma, whose height and wing span allow him to block shots flat footed. It's hard to believe the first exhibition game is only 13 days away.

Just a reminder, Jerry and I will be on the air with the pregame show from Portland on Saturday at 1 p.m. MT, with kickoff at 2:05 p.m. Mountain Time. We hope you'll join us.

--Brad B.

And thanks for being a Bengal fan; it's ain't always easy, but it's always fun.

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