It's one of those weeks when the future and present collide, where one sport is getting ready to rebuild for next season, and one faces a big challenge in the here-and-now. Where to start?
How about first-things-first. Wednesday is the first day that mid-year transfers from junior colleges can sign with four-year football programs. The Idaho State coaching staff is placing a good deal more emphasis on junior college recruiting this year, because the Bengals need immediate help on a number of fronts. In particular, Coach John Zamberlin (above) and his staff are looking for defensive linemen and linebackers who can make an immediate impact next year. Given a choice, of course, any coaching staff would prefer a mid-year JC transfer who can get into school in January and take part in spring football. Sometimes, though, the better junior college athletes are available to schools like Idaho State when they are fall enrollees, simply because a lot of bigger schools won't be willing to wait for them if they can't transfer in January.
In the past, Idaho State has sometimes waited to announce its mid-year transfers on the more traditional "national signing day" in February, when high school recruits can first sign. (This year, that date is Feb. 4.) I don't know how Coach Z will want to play announcements this year, but I know there are a lot of anxious Bengal fans looking forward to a solid JC recruiting class, whenever the players enroll, and whenever their signing is announced.
On to Hoops
While Zamberlin and company build for next season, Coach Joe O'Brien and his men's basketball team will get another quick reality check on where they stand this year when the Bengals host Utah State on Saturday night. The Aggies are 6-1 with their only loss a two-pointer to a very good BYU team at Energy Solutions Arena on Dec. 6. Utah State is led by two talented big men -- 6-11 Gary Wilkinson, who was the pre-season WAC Player of the Year; and multi-dimensional Tai Wesley, a 6-8 F who usually marks in every statistical category.
Like most Stew Morrill teams, this year's Aggies are good shooters, hitting over 54 percent from the field. They are also a dominant rebounding team this year -- Utah State is outrebounding its opponents by 12 a game so far. If the Bengals are going to win Saturday night, two things have to happen: 7-footer David Busmas has to stay out of foul trouble long enough to contribute, and the Bengal wing players, in particular Matt Stucki, Amorrow Morgan and Donnie Carson, have to make big efforts on the glass. Busma picked up three fouls in only 9 minutes against Wisconsin-Green Bay last week, had three fouls against Wisconsin, and fouled out against Utah. He needs to be a presence for at least 20 minutes against Wilkinson and the Aggies.
It is no revelation, meanwhile, to say that the Bengals always play their best when Stucki, Morgan and Carson are playing at a high level. They are Idaho State's best athletes, and they have to score and rebound for the Bengals to beat good teams like Utah State. That trio put up 43 points and 17 rebounds in the win over Utah. By contrast, they combined for only 17 points and 8 boards in the dud against Wisconsin-Green Bay last week.
Finally, Back to Football For a Moment
Montana will try to bring a national championship back to the Big Sky Conference when the Grizzlies meet Richmond in the FCS title game Friday night in Chattanooga. The Griz have been in the title game six times, winning twice. They are the only Big Sky Conference team to reach the championship game since Boise State lost to Youngstown State in 1994. I must say, I'm conflicted about whether to root for the Griz. On the one hand, a Big Sky championship is a Big Sky championship; on the other, another Montana title only continues to reinforce the notion that the Big Sky is a one-trick pony on the national scene. Since Boise State, Idaho and Nevada left the league, the Griz are the only BSC team to make a dent on the national consciousness.
As I try to decide who to cheer for, I'll go ahead and give you my keys to a Montana win Friday night: 1) Stop Josh Vaughan, who has run for 1722 yards and 19 touchdowns, on first and second down, forcing the Spiders to put it up more than they'd like; and 2) Protect QB Cole Berquist. The Grizzly QB has been sacked a whopping 48 times this year, and he'll be going up against two of the better defensive linemen in the FCS in Lawrence Sidbury (16 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks) and Sherman Logan (12.5 TFLS, 6 sacks). The Griz need emerging RB Chase Reynolds to continue to be a force on early downs, keeping the play-action passing game viable. If the Spiders throw a web around Reynolds (weak play on words, I know), it's going to be a long night for the Griz.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.