Forget the high profile games against Arizona State and Oklahoma, or the Big Sky Conference opener against rival Weber State: the most important game of Idaho State's football season comes against Division II Central Washington in week four. It will be the Bengals' home opener after what could be a brutal three-game road trip to start the season. It may be Idaho State's best chance for a win all season. And it matches up Bengal Head Coach John Zamberlin against a program he helped build into a powerhouse, in a game with real recruiting implications.
With the demise of Western Washington's program, Central remains the last D-II team in the state of Washington. The Wildcats took advantage of that distinction to sign 36 players from the Evergreen State this spring, including four players who got offers from Big Sky schools. With Zamberlin's Washington roots, Idaho State has taken several Washington athletes in his first three recruiting classes. Not only is he competing with fellow Big Sky program Eastern Washington for players, but also CWU and Washington State, where former Portland State coach Paul Wulff has taken several players who would have fallen to Big Sky programs in years past. A loss to CWU at this stage in the Zamberlin program would certainly send the wrong message to Washington recruits.
The outlook for the Central Washington season is clearly mixed. On the positive side: the Wildcats return 15 starters from a team that went 10-2 under first-year Coach Blaine Bennett, and qualified for the D-II playoffs for the second year in a row. Among those returnees are All-American wide receiver Johnny Spevak, who caught 91 passes for 20 touchdowns last year; and playmaking safety Jerome Williams (above), a 6-2, 212-pound senior who had five interceptions and 10 passes defended. On the negative side, the Wildcats lose two key pieces from an offense that put up 42 points and 424 yards a game: All-American quarterback Mike Reilly, who signed with the Steelers as a free agent after throwing 37 touchdowns vs. just 6 picks last year; and tight end Jared Bronson, who caught 28 balls for six touchdowns last season, then signed a free agent deal with the Dolphins.
The loss of Reilly and Bronson might not be as much of a concern if the Wildcats posed a bigger defensive presence. But CWU did not field a dominating defense last year, giving up 24 or more points six times. The Wildcats won a 44-38 overtime shoot-out over Dixie State, beat Western Oregon 31-24, lost at Montana 38-35, edged Western Oregon 38-31 and fell in the first round of the playoffs to West Texas A&M, 49-42. In addition to safety Williams, the Wildcats return leading tackler Buddy Wood and Adam Bighill, who had five picks, at linebacker; and five players who recorded at least 4.5 sacks last season, including Tyrell Nielsen and Ryan Dyer, who led with 7.5 apiece.
The Wildcats made up for a lack of physical dominance on defense by making game-changing plays -- they were plus-15 in turnovers, and registered 39 sacks while giving up only 18. You can give up a lot of yards and points when you're making that many big plays.
Still, the big question for Bennett and his CWU staff must be who will replace Reilly at the helm of their high-powered passing game. That passing game is key to the success of the Wildcats, whose longest run from scrimmage came from quarterback Reilly last year, and whose leading rusher registered only 500 yards in 12 contests. Redshirt freshman Ryan Robertson was the most impressive of the quarterback contenders in the spring game, completing 10 of 16 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown. Whoever wins the starting job will have the weight of the program on their backs.
The Wildcats will be playing their fifth game when they come to Pocatello on Sept. 26, including road games at Mesa State and Minnesota Duluth, and home contests against the same West Texas A&M program that eliminated them from the playoffs last year and Azusa Pacific.
Idaho State, meanwhile, will likely have to take a major gut check, both emotionally and physically, after that insane three-game stretch to open the season. How beat up will Idaho State be physically? And how much fight will the Bengals have in them after three weeks on the road against teams that will be prohibitive favorites? I think it's fair to say that this game will be one of the biggest tests of John Zamberlin's tenure at Idaho State.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it' ain't always easy but it's always fun.
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