Not going to clutter things up, but I hope all the fans are enjoying the insights from Brad Bugger. Brad's analysis during games is almost always spot on during games, but his posts this week have been great, and I really didn't want to supplant them (I almost didn't post this because I didn't want to drop his latest one down). Anyways, I've enjoyed not posting them this week LOL.
One last thing and back to Brad, but the team is loading busses for the SLC airport at 5:00 am. I don't have to tell you that I only recognize one 5 o'clock, and it's usually NOT the AM one. Also, they are now saying isolated thunderstorms Saturday in Greeley. I'm glad I work in a press box.
The forecast for Greeley, Colo. where the Bengals and Northern Colorado kick off at 1:37 p.m. Saturday is a high of 49 degrees, a 40 percent chance of rain or snow, and 10 to 15 MPH winds out of the north. Now that's football weather. Oh yeah, the Bears play outside, my friend.
Who is better equipped to handle a muddy field? Tough to say, neither one of these teams has been very successful running the football, which is typically what you expect teams to do when the ball is too slippery to throw accurately. The Bengals are 7th in the Big Sky in running per game, the Bears eighth. On the flip side, neither team has been too good in stopping the run, either, with the Bengals dead last in run defense, NCU No. 7. ISU's run defense has improved in the last two weeks, however, with the Bengals reducing their opponents' average rushing by almost 40 yards per game.
The other wild card, of course, is who the Bengals will line up on defense. The rash of injuries, particularly on the defensive line, means we will likely see some new names in new places on Saturday.
Speaking of being ill prepared for bad weather, Portland State's run-and-shoot offense is averaging a whopping 21.6 rushing yards per game this year. (Of course, when you put up 623 passing yards in one game, rushing becomes such a little thing.) The good news is PSU won't have to worry about bad weather this week, as the Vikings play inside the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff. The bad news is they are taking on a Northern Arizona team that is giving up only 11.4 rushing yards per game. The PSU running game vs. the Axer run defense is something akin to matching up the immovable object and the wet noodle. Run, schmun. I expect Viking QB Drew Hubel to put it up 70 times against the Axers on Saturday.
Before the season, most folks pointed to this weekend's matchup between Montana and EWU in Cheney as the game of the year in the Big Sky. After last week's upsets, though, it's not even the game of the week. That honor belongs to the Weber State at Montana State game, where two of the three remaining unbeatens in the Big Sky matchup. Ordinarily, I'd say inclement weather and poor field conditions would give the Bobcats an edge, but the Wildcats proved they were excellent mudders in beating Montana in the slop in Ogden last week. WSU also has the incomparable Trevyn Smith, a true workhorse in the backfield. In the battle of Cats, I think Smith tips the scales to the Wilds over the Bobs.
And what to make of that Montana-EWU game? Wow, two teams really hurting on defense recently (Montana has given up 80 points in the last two weeks, EWU 88). I tell you, the Big Sky is not for the feint of heart this year. This is a return to the "good old days" of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when high-scoring shootouts were the norm. I love Eastern QB Matt Nichols, so I'm going to go with the Eagles in this one, 45-38.
And back to NAU for just a moment. In a year when no one in the Big Sky is seemingly playing defense, the Axers are playing it terrifically. In addition to leading the nation in rushing defense, NAU is No. 11 in scoring D and 15th in total defense. NAU hired Jerome Souers away from Montana a decade ago with the idea that stealing the Griz's D coordinator would tip the scales in the offensively-obsessed BSC. Could this finally be the year that Souers takes the crown away from his former employer? The stage certainly seems set for SOMEONE to step up and win a crown other than Montana for the first time in a decade. Why not the Axers?
And thanks for being a Bengal fan. It ain't always easy, but it's always fun.
As I noted earlier, I spent some time on my travels to Washington last week reading the Big Sky's pre-season basketball prospectus. I also had a chat with Bengal Coach Joe O'Brien, who can barely contain his enthusiasm about the upcoming basketball season. I haven't seen any of the Bengal newcomers yet, so all of this is based on what I'm hearing from Coach O'Brien and a quick analysis of rosters, but here are my pre-season predictions for Big Sky b-ball:
Portland State: The Vikings return three starters from last year's Big Sky Conference champions, including MVP PG Jeremiah Dominguez. They lost two key contributors in Deonte Huff and Scott Morrison, but they redshirted three reportedly talented D-1 transfers: 6-7 Phil Nelson (Washington), 6-1 Dominic Waters (Hawaii), and 6-7 Jamie Jones (Portland). The Vikings were 13-1 at home last year, and right now, the road to the Big Sky title goes through the Stott Center until proven otherwise.
Montana: The Grizzlies have all-conference forward Jordan Hasquet back, along with two guards, Ryan Staudacher and Ceylon Elgin-Taylor, who played significant roles last season. Transfer G Michael Taylor was a part-time starter as a true freshman at EWU, 6-6 Jack McGillis is a highly-touted talent who transferred from Oregon State, and 7-0 foot Derek Selvig and 6-11 Brian Qvale provide size inside. And don't underestimate the value of adding ISU alum and former Southern Utah head coach Bill Evans to the staff. Evans brings experience and stability to a staff that is under a lot of heat for underperforming the last two seasons.
Idaho State: The Bengals roster certainly passes the eye test: four returning starters, including all BSC G-F Matt Stucki; veteran leadership in Stucki, Amorrow Morgan and Donnie Carson; size (6-11 Lucas Stein, 7-0 Davidas Busma and 6-8 Felix Caspari); and flexibility -- at least two good athletes available at every position. When I talked to O'Brien last week, he was excited about the potential of true freshman PG Sherrod Baldwin and the shooting ability of JC transfer G Kal Bay. I wouldn't be surprised to see both of them playing together quite a bit. I'm always leary about how quickly JC kids fit into a system and chemistry is a concern when you have so many different pieces to fit together smoothly. Hopefully the team will respond well to another typically-tough non-conference schedule so that Coach OB can get a working rotation down by conference time. Remember this: the key to winning the Big Sky is dominating the home court. The Bengals have to OWN Holt Arena in conference play if they are going to win the league title and host the first conference tournament in Pocatello since 1977.
Northern Colorado: Mentioning Jabril Banks (13.2 points and 5.8 rebounds) is a no-brainer, but I really liked the young players the Bears put on the floor last year -- Jefferson Mason and Taylor Montgomery, in particular. How good Northern Colorado will be depends a great deal, however, on continued growth in guard play. If Robert Palacios, Devon Beitzel and John Pena contribute more, I can see the Bears hosting a first-round playoff game.
Northern Arizona: Kyle Landry is gone, Mike Adras is back. While NAU will miss their outstanding big man, Adras always seems to have this team competitive. Josh Wilson, who has led the Big Sky in assists every year since he was a freshman, is finally a senior, and Zarko Comagic will likely improve his production as a senior. The Axers have a lot of role players back and Shayar Lee, a 6-5 true freshman who was considered one of the top prospects in Arizona last season, leads a group of 7 newcomers. Some of those new kids will have to emerge for the Axers to be a playoff team.
Weber State: It just feels funny picking the Wildcats this low, and maybe they will surprise, led by one of their five newcomers. But the "returnees" list doesn't excite too much. Daviin Davis and Kellen McCoy are the only two significant returners and neither averaged in double figures in scoring. Damian Lilliard, a 6-2 freshman guard, averaged 30 points a game in high school in Oakland, so he could bring some firepower to what looks like a rather pedestrian attack.
Montana State: Divaldo Mbunga provides a solid presence in the middle and Bobby Howard, who put 27 points on Boise State last year, then faded, has to be more consistent for the Bobcats to contend for a playoff spot. None of the returnees, quite frankly, excite me much, so JC forward Cameron Henderson is going to have to make an impact.
Eastern Washington: Kirk Earlywine's best recruiting effort was to convince sophomore G. Trey Gross to return to the team, after he originally left to go to a JC. Adris DeLeon, the 5-11 guard who put up 42 points against Northern Colorado last year,and Brandon Moore, a solid, 6-9 F, give the Eagles a nice base to build from, along with Gross. Benny Valentine, a 5-7 transfer from Texas Tech, could also provide some excitement at the PG, but it's hard to envision both he and DeLeon on the floor at the same time.
Sacramento State: What would a Big Sky Conference pre-season basketball poll be without the Hornets bringing up the rear? New coach Brian Katz will lean on Loren Leath, who averaged 13 points a game at guard, and Justin Eller, a 6-8 center, after losing Big Sky freshman of the year Vinnnie McGhee to transfer. The Hornets bring in five Juco transfers this year, always a gamble, but sometimes these mass infusions of talent pay off. They will have to for the Hornets to climb out of the cellar.
Couple of quick things from last Saturday's football game after digesting things....
#1. It was not pass interference. It didn't cost ISU the game, but after seeing it from three different cameras, it wasn't pass interference, and honestly, it's not even close...Jaron Taylor never touched the guy. He just tripped. Bad break for ISU on that one.
#2. Neal Larson, our P.A. announcer, just felt horrible about getting Eddie's name mixed up with Sale' on the record breaking catch. I had just announced that Eddie passed Sale' in the press box, and I think Neal still had the name Sale' in his head when he announced it, but I'll take the blame anyways, as I should have really had something written out for him, as I usually do. I had it for the North Dakota game, and I just didn't do it for this one, so I can take the heat there.
#4. The coaching staff is doing things the right way...Zamberlin and company opted not for the quick fix, but to build the program. I think you will see dividends here and there, but the growing pains are tough. I'm not sure what's worse...how our season has gone, or how Northern Colorado's, who have almost invented new ways to lose games lately. In the last three week, UNC fumbled at the goal line in the final seconds of a 38-35 loss, fumbled a two-point conversion (they tried the Arkansas swinging gate play, seen here about 1:20 into the video). Last week, the allowed UC Davis to throw a 38-yard Hail Mary with no time left.
Couple of quick links, but Dan Thompson, who played fine poker all night long, has a blog take on the game, along with quick links to the rest of the Big Sky games. Of course, it's always fun to see silly comments, and calling the A.D. "Jeff Dingey" is just so simple when hiding behind an anonymous email post. I hope that guy feels a little bigger today for giving grief to an interim A.D. Brilliant.
Let's try the positives, first, always a good place to be: I loved the way Kenyon Blue, Clint Knickhrem, Mike Jablonski, Russell Hill, Eddie Thompson and several other Bengals too numerous to mention competed on Saturday, in the loss to Montana State. I know, Ws and Ls are the bottom line, and the Bengals left a lot of points on the field Saturday. (And the officials took 7 off the board -- I didn't see the replay, so don't know if there really was offensive interference by Jaron Taylor, but either way that call was a critical one.)
But you absolutely have to love the effort of many of the Bengals and that refusal to quit is going to be a critical trait as the Bengals try to turn this program around. Bad attitudes tend to spread, not only in the lockerroom, but when it comes time to bring in recruits. It's true -- players are the best salesmen for your program, and you've got to have players who believe in themselves and the program in order to convince other good players to come to your school. It all starts with leadership, and I'm starting to see a lot of leaders step up for the Bengals.
The down side, beside another loss, was the mounting injury report. We'll get an update from Coach John Zamberlin on the coach's show tonight (6 p.m.--AM 930), but it looks like the already depleted defensive line took a few more shots on Saturday. Injuries are a part of football, but sometimes it just seems like the football gods should be flagged 15 yards for piling on.
On to another topic: I talked with ISU Basketball Coach Joe O'Brien and his assistant Mike Brown at the Hall of Fame reception Friday night and neither could contain their excitement about the upcoming season. O'Brien's charges started "boot camp" on Friday -- a long run picking up 2,000 feet in elevation through a hail storm, and Coach OB said the players turned in their best collective times since he's been at ISU. Official practice will begin Oct.17, I believe, and instead of "Midnight Madness," the Bengals are planning 7 p.m. "craziness" for the first practice. A lot of Bengal fans are really looking forward to getting their first looks at what should be a deep and talented team. I spent my time flying to DC last week perusing the Big Sky pre-season basketball prospectus. I'll give you my pre-season predictions in a blog later this week.
Finally, the Hall of Fame inductions this week were incredibly poignant for me, for a number of reasons. Foremost was seeing my good friends Jim (posthumously) and Su Fox inducted. I won't go into a long babble about how important these two people have been in my life, suffice it to say, it meant a great deal to me to see them both honored. And Jim Lane, my oh my, ISU needs to hire him right now as a motivational speaker. He gave a great induction speech -- witty, emotional, tearful and inspirational. Finally, Dave and Barbara Kragthorpe remain two of my all-time favorite people. They are so down-to-earth, so genuine and such caring people. It's a shame Dave was only head coach for three years, he's the kind of person who not only could have coached winners, but he would have been a great athletic director when Babe Caccia retired. His loyalty to his alma mater (Utah State) shortcircuited that plan, and ISU has been the worse for it.
Off to Greeley Saturday, and a battle with a bunch of hurting Bears, beaten on a Hail Mary pass by UC Davis on Saturday. This will be another character test for the Bengals, who are trying to break a nine-game losing streak and get Coach Z and his staff their first road win at Idaho State. Jerry and I will be on the air Saturday at 12:30 p.m. to begin our coverage, please join us.
And thanks for being Bengal fans. It ain't always easy, but it's always fun.
PS--Folks who know me know I have an affinity for stats (that's probably why Frank tolerates me -:). Well, in doing my research before Saturday's game, one Big Sky Conference stat stood out at me -- before their game Saturday with Sacramento State, Northern Arizona had given up 36 yards rushing -- all season! That so intrigued me, I wanted to see how they did against Sac State on Saturday. The result? Sac had 41 rushing attempts, and 21 rushing yards -- less than half a yard per carry. I'll be keeping one eye on that NAU defense this Saturday against a Portland State team coming off an epic offensive performance against EWU last week.