Despite the horrorific early season schedule Idaho State faces in the upcoming football season, you can actually construct a scenario where the Bengals could realistically be 3-3 after the first half of the season. It requires a lot of assumptions and leaps of faith, but it is not out of the question that Idaho State could beat a very good Division II Central Washington team in their home opener, ride that momentum to an upset of a probation bitten Eastern Washington team in the conference home opener and then beat what looks like a very average Sacramento State team on the road in week 6.
Likely? No, but not out of the question. Ironically, beating Sac State, one of the annual cellar-dwellars in the Big Sky Conference, may be the most unlikely piece in that "best of all worlds" scenario. The Bengals have never played well in California's capital, going just 1-5 at Hornet Stadium. Their only win came in 2005, and that's the only time in the last 10 years the Bengals have been closer than 11 points to the Hornets on the road.
A cursory look at the Sac State spring prospectus suggests this may be the year to steal a win in Sacramento. While the Hornets are coming off a 6-6 season (which included a loss to Idaho State, the Bengals' only win of the year) and they return 17 at least part-time starters, they are missing their two biggest "impact" players: All-Americans Tony Washington, a wide receiver; and linebacker Cyrus Mulitalo. Washington, who caught 83 passes for 1,276 yards last year, signed as a free agent with the Seattle Seahawks. Mulitalo, the second-leader tackler in Sac State history, went to mini-camp with Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh.
Mulitalo is one of three starting linebackers who ran out of eligibility for the Hornets, leaving a significant gap in their 4-3 defense. They represented three of the top five Sac State tacklers, a significant force on a defense that held opponents to just 3.2 yards per rush; and 11 of the team's 31 total sacks. Meanwhile Washington, No. 2 receiver Kyle Hill and Dylan Lane, who was fourth in catches last year, all depart, leaving QB Jason Smith (above) with only one experienced target -- sophomore Chase Deader, who caught 21 balls for an average of 17 yards per catch last season.
That lack of receiving depth will be amplified by the fact the Hornets' two best running backs, Bryan Hilliard and Evander Wilkins, missed spring ball with injuries and Hilliard, who gained over 1,000 yards and had 12 touchdowns, will miss this season following shoulder surgery. Sophomore Jake Croxdale (347 yards, 3.7 ypc) will likely split time with JC transfer Kenslow Smith and redshirt freshman Anthony Biasi at running back until Wilkins shows he's healthy.
Keeping Jason Smith, who missed two games last season with injuries, healthy will be a key to Sac State's season. The senior-to-be completed 56 percent of his passes last year for 16 touchdowns and six interceptions. Senior John Loeliger took most of the snaps in spring practice this year, but he threw only one pass in three appearances last fall.
You know Marshall Sperbeck's club will be fired up for the Bengals' arrival after Idaho State put a damper on the best Sacramento State season in eight years. The Hornets came into Holt Arena with the chance to post seven wins for the first time since 2000, but the Bengals won a dramatic 36-33 overtime contest to avoid the worst season in Idaho State history. ISU senior Kenyon Blue moved to the running back spot after playing slot receiver most of his career, and put up 111 yards rushing and two touchdowns. ISU QB Kyle Blum, in only his second start, threw for 342 yards and no picks in the game.
Idaho State's defenders certainly won't miss Hilliard at all this season. Last year, the Hornet workhorse rambled for 271 yards and four touchdowns on 40 carries, giving him a total of 511 yards and seven touchdowns against the Bengals over the last two seasons.
While the Sac State matchup comes in week six for Idaho State, it will be only the fifth game of the year for the Hornets, who open the season at UNLV and Cal Poly, then have a bye week before hosting Eastern Washington, a team they beat on the road last year, and travelling to Portland State. The ISU-Sac State matchup very well could set the tone for both of these ballclubs.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.
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