Sunday, July 26, 2009

Look Ahead No. 7: Northern Colorado

Here's the thing that's so confounding about Northern Colorado: sure, the Bears
won only one game last season, and that was over a 1-11 Idaho State team. But, Northern Colorado lost five games by seven points or less; gave up only 3.7 yards per rush; was plus-1 in turnovers; and lost by only seven to eventual co-champion Weber State -- in Ogden. With 17 starters coming back from that team, wouldn't you think the Bears would have a decent shot at a .500 or better team?

Ah, but here's the rub: I'm a firm believer that to be a successful football team, you need playmakers -- and Northern Colorado lost its only big-time playmaker from last season when linebacker Cristian Sarmento (above) ran out of eligibility. The numbers show just what a dominating force the 6-1, 220-pound senior was last year: he had 142 tackles, 63 more than the second highest player on the team; he recorded 10 of Northern Colorado's 22 sacks -- nobody else had more than two; and he was significantly involved in his team's positive turnover ratio, forcing five fumbles and recovering two.

Sans Sarmento, Northern Colorado has only one other returning player who remotely approaches the definition of "playmaker": safety Max Hewitt, their leading returning tackler who was honorable mention All-Big Sky as a sophomore last year.

Offensively, the Bears list no one who jumps out at you as a potential star. Quarterback Bryan Waggener, who threw for 14 touchdowns and 15 picks in his first year in Greeley after transferring from Florida, is probably the closest. Even assuming Waggener shows the kind of second-year improvement that is common among quarterbacks, he's still lacking big-time targets and running mates, at least with experience. In a conference where all-American candidates at wide receiver are everywhere, Northern Colorado offers up only Alex Thompson and Brandon Smith, whose production was serviceable with 37 and 36 catches, respectively, but certainly not in the same universe as guys like Tim Toone, Marc Mariani and Aaron Boyce of the conference's more elite programs.

The Bears do return second-leading rusher Tyrone Wilson, who put up 138 yards in the win over Idaho State last year, but 72 of those came on one run and that was Wilson's only 100-plus yard performance of the season.

That Idaho State loss in Greeley was one of the truly down moments in what was a l-o-n-g season. Playing in the sleet and wind, the Bengals averaged a whopping 1.1 yards per rush, even though quarterback Russell Hill was sacked only once. Hill greatly contributed to his own demise, tossing up four interceptions and no touchdowns, and that performance was really the turning point in the way Idaho State coaches began looking at their quarterback situation. From that point forward, Kyle Blum became a serious option for the Bengals.

The Bears will travel to Pocatello this year in what will be game No. 7 for both teams. Northern Colorado opens the season at Kansas, the pre-season pick to finish second in the Big 12 North, then hosts the University of San Diego. The Bears will play four Big Sky games before meeting ISU: at Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona, and against Montana State and Portland State in Greeley.

If a few of those 17 returning starters mature from being JAGs ("just a guy"), or if some of Northern Colorado's newcomers step in to be immediate playmakers, the Bears may be looking at the Idaho State game as more than just an opportunity for their annual Big Sky win (Northern Colorado has won only one conference game a year since officially joining the league four years ago.)

ISU, meanwhile, could be looking at the Bears as a chance to continue some momentum gained from the softest spot in their schedule: home games with Central and Eastern Washington, and a road trip to Sacramento State. Of course, nothing is going to come easy for either one of these programs, at least not this season. One thing is for certain: whoever loses this game is going to feel like a great opportunity was fumbled.

Basketball Scheduling Notes

Both BYU and Utah have released their non-conference schedules, and, as expected, Idaho State is on both slates. The Bengals will play in Provo Nov. 17, and at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City Dec. 5 -- three days after the Utes host defending Big Sky regular season champion Weber State. USC has also announced the Bengals will visit their glistening new basketball arena in Los Angeles on Dec. 11.

ISU hasn't finalized its schedule yet, but I'm told among the other non-conference teams the Bengals will visit are Oregon, Iowa State and, as noted earlier, Notre Dame. Joe O'Brien's team will bring in $380,000 in guarantee money this year. That's not going to be easy money, but it appears the level of competition will be down a notch from last year's killer slate. USC has a new coach and lost several players to the NBA; both Oregon and Iowa State are coming off down seasons.

On the Topic of Guarantees

Boise State announced this week that it will play Virginia Tech at FEDEX Field in Washington DC in 2010 for a $1.25 million payday -- what is believed to be one of the biggest paychecks for a visiting team in NCAA history. The Broncos had said earlier that they were reluctantly abandoning their aversion to big money, one-and-done road games in light of the current economic tough times. They hit a home run with this one -- a big name opponent in the nation's capital and I'm sure it will draw national television coverage.
-Brad B.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.

No comments: