Most schools save the last week of the season for a matchup with their arch rivals. Since Weber State doesn't like to compete with BYU-Utah for fans and attention and the Wildcats agreed to buy out ISU's game with Cal Poly, however, Idaho State gets to play Portland State in their season-ender this year. And since it's in Pocatello, that's probably not a bad thing.
In the last eight seasons, the home team has won the Bengal-Viking clash, so the odds favor ISU ending the year with a win for the second straight season. In this, PSU's coach Jerry Glanville's third year at the helm, the Vikings don't appear to be greatly improved from the squad that finished 4-7 in 2008.
Glanville (above) has made noises about fixing some of the Vikings' obvious problems: their nearly non-existent running game and their porous defense. But even though long-time run-and-shoot guru Mouse Davis "retired" as PSU's offensive coordinator last spring and was replaced by co-coordinators, I'll believe PSU is more committed to establishing the run when I see it. As for the defense, which gave up 32.5 points a game, better only than Idaho State's, well I tend to believe that's only going to get better when PSU dumps its whacked-out approach to offense.
The bottom line is that it's extremely difficult to play good defense when your defenders are on the field almost nine minutes a game longer than your opponents', as was the case for the Vikings last year. I know that time of possession is one of those stats people like to make fun of (I do it myself when there are instances when the stat is totally meaningless), but over an 11-game season, there's no denying that PSU's defenders get worn down.
That time of possession stat is not going to improve significantly unless the Vikings can run the football -- at least a little. When fullback Bobby McClintock went down with a knee injury last year, the Vikings lost their only legitimate running threat out of their one-back, run-and-shoot attack, and the result was a 1.7 yard per carry average. That, in turn, led directly to PSU's quarterbacks being sacked 41 times, an average of almost four a game -- the highest per-game average in the Big Sky. McClintock is reportedly back healthy this year, but it won't matter if the Vikings aren't committed to handing him the football more often.
It's not that the Vikings won't be bringing some talent with them when they arrive in Pocatello for their Nov. 14 contest. Quarterback Drew Hubel threw for over 290 yards a game and 18 touchdowns last year; wide-out Aaron Woods caught 66 balls for over 1,000 yards and six scores; and on defense, both linebacker Erik Pedersen and defensive back Deshawn Snead (who led the league with six picks as a freshman last year) were pre-season all-league picks.
The Vikings will be without Mario D'Ambrosio, one of the league's better receivers, however. D'Ambrosio, who caught 76 passes for 9 TDS last season, suffered a severe knee injury and his football career appears to be over. They also lost backup quarterback Tyge Howland, who also went down with a knee injury over the summer.
Portland State was able to hold off the Bengals, 36-13 last year in Portland, despite ISU holding a 35-25 minute advantage in time of possession. The Bengals had the football for over 10 minutes in the second quarter but could only put two field goals on the board, and trailed at half, 16-13. PSU then outscored Idaho State 20-0 in the second half. The Vikings had a net of only 12 yards rushing in the game, but Hubel and Co. riddled a depleted ISU secondary for 547 yards and three touchdowns. Bengal DB Michael Wright managed to pick off two passes and break up three in the face of the onslaught.
Both PSU's Glanville and Idaho State's John Zamberlin arrived as head coaches in the conference three years ago. Zamberlin got the first scalp, beating the Vikings 38-20 with the help of two fumble recoveries for touchdowns in 2007. Coach Z would like nothing better than to cap off a season of significant improvement with another W this year.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.