Just about every year that I've gone to Bozeman to watch the Idaho State-Montana State football game, something crazy has happened. For example:
- In 1994, my first year as a Bengal broadcaster, the ISU administration was about to drop the ax on coach Brian McNeely. After beating Adams State in the opener, the Bengals had lost to Utah, Northern Arizona and Idaho by a combined score of 177-40. In fact, the interim athletic director at the time wanted to fire McNeely before the MSU game, but was talked out of it. So the Bengals went to Bozeman, Alfredo Anderson set an Idaho State rushing record with 271 yards and ISU won, 38-20. The Bengals went on to win five of their last seven games, including victories over Boise State and Montana (both national semifinalists that year), and saved McNeely's job -- for two more seasons, anyway.
- Jared Allen is now known in Idaho State annals as a Buck Buchanan Award-winner and all-American defensive end. But in 2001, he was still a developing talent with a hot head on his shoulders. That head blew off, literally, in Bozeman, when Allen was thrown out of the game and then tossed his helmet over the stadium fence. You could have gotten pretty short odds that afternoon on how long Allen was going to last in Pocatello. By the way, MSU won the game, 52-13.
- Atari Callen had been waiting, and not too patiently, for the NCAA to clear him to play for Idaho State after his transfer in 2003 from Division I Cal. Five games into the season, he finally got the green light and the defensive back didn't waste any time, wracking up 16 tackles in a three-overtime win over Eastern Washington. The next week, Bengal offensive coordinator Bruce Barnum cooked up a "secret weapon" as ISU prepared to bus north to Bozeman. The Bengals broke out Callen, a former high school all-American who ran for over 3,800 yards in his prep career, at tailback. Callen ran nine times for 71 yards against the stunned Bobcat defense, and the Bengals won 23-17. And thus was born the very short-lived Legend of Atari Callen.
- Finally, in 2007, I was watching Dueling Pick Sixes. MSU ballhawk Kevin Retoriano started the fun by running back an interception 86 yards for a touchdown to give the Bobcats a 14-10 second-quarter advantage. Bengal DB D.J. Clark responded five minutes later with a 48-yard Pick Six of his own, to give ISU a 17-14 halftime advantage. The Bobcats dominated the second half, though, and won 40-20.
So what tricks and/or treats will be in store for Bengal and Bobcat fans when these two teams get together in Bozeman at high noon on Halloween this year? Hard to say, but if history is any indication expect the game to turn on two factors: who can run the football, and whose defense can turn it over.
In looking back at Montana State's profile from last year, very bright lines were drawn between what things the Bobcats did well -- and those they did not. In the well category: running the football (they led the Big Sky Conference in rushing), and stopping the run (they had the second best rush defense in the league). In the not-so-well column: passing (MSU's three quarterbacks completed less than 50 percent of their passes combined, and threw 19 interceptions to just 14 touchdowns); turnovers (the Bobcats were minus-10 in that category) and coming back (MSU was 7-0 when leading at half; they were 0-5 when trailing at the end of three quarters).
All of those numbers were a very clear reflection on the character of the football team that Rob Ash is constructing in this, his third year at the MSU helm. Included in that picture is this illuminating statistic: Ash is 6-0 against ISU's John Zamberlin, Sac State's Marshall Sperbeck and Portland State's Jerry Glanville, the other three Big Sky Conference coaches who entered the league three seasons ago. (The only coach Ash is 0-2 against? You got it -- Montana's Bobby Hauck. That's a number that is going to start to get real uncomfortable for Ash if it persists).
Right now, Ash is looking for a way to move the Bobcat program up another notch. MSU has enjoyed seven straight winning seasons, tied for three conference titles in the last eight years, and they are the perennial No. 2 in attendance in the league. But, they haven't won more than seven games in a season since their national title in 1984, and their attendance -- and their stature -- both seem capped for now: their attendance by the size of their stadium, which they routinely fill up on Saturdays; their stature by their in-state rival, the University of Montana.
Even though the Bobcats return seven starters from their league-leading defense and four pre-season all-conference picks en toto, it still doesn't look from the outside like MSU is ready to take that next step -- at least not yet. The defense, which features All-American and Buchanan Award-candidate Dane Fletcher (above) at end, and the explosive Retoriano at safety, will be plenty good. The Bobcats also have back two playmaking linebackers in Chase Gazzerro and Jeff Price, and solid players at nearly every other position. MSU was particularly good at stuffing the run last year, holding opponents to just 2.6 yards per carry, and their sack ratio was more than 2-1 -- an outstanding 36 sacks by Montana State to just 17 by their opponents.
The problem comes on the other side of the football. MSU used three different starting quarterbacks last year because of injury and inconsistency, and none put up particularly good numbers. Cody Kempt, a transfer from Oregon State, got the call against Idaho State and delivered a very efficient 15 of 21 for 187 yards, one TD and no interceptions in the Bobcats' 33-21 win. But both Kempt and backup Mark Iddins suffered season-ending injuries, and both were largely mediocre when healthy. Third-stringer Mark Desins took the majority of snaps in the spring, as Kempt and Iddins recuperated, but Desins is moving back to wide receiver.
Ash, meanwhile, is reluctant to place all the offense's troubles on the quarterbacks. He told reporters earlier this week that MSU's lack of talent at the wide receiver spot has been a bigger issue, at least in his mind. Losing talented freshman DeSean Thomas to a torn ACL in game nine didn't help. Ash believes there is help on the way in the form of transfer Elvis Akpla (Oregon), and several redshirt and true freshmen. While Ash didn't give Kempt the quarterback job outright, he certainly sounded like the 6-2 junior was expected to win back the job he lost by being unable to participate fully in spring drills. Ash lavishly praised Kempt's off-season workout, which has reportedly added about 20 pounds of muscle to his frame.
Another key to MSU success this season will be replacing the production of departed running back Demetrius Crawford, who ran for over 1,300 yards and eight touchdowns, and also caught 18 balls out of the backfield last year. The most likely replacement is C.J. Palmer, a powerful 226-pound sophomore who averaged 5 yards a carry and scored seven touchdowns in a limited role as a freshman.
Palmer and Thomas are the jewels of the Bobcats' Lone Star collection -- there were nine Texans on the spring roster, and another six freshmen from the Lone Star State are expected in Bozeman for fall camp. Ash credits secondary coach Justin Gaines for making the deep splash into the Texas talent pool. In addition to their Texans, the Bobcats also have two Pocatellans on their roster, and both look poised to play a role this season. Safety Jordan Craney from Century High is listed at No. 2 on the depth chart, while former Highland star Jeff Miller gets first crack at filling the important left tackle spot on offense.
It will be the eighth game of the season for MSU, the Bengals' ninth when the two teams get together in Bozeman this year. As is almost always the case against the Bobcats, the keys for the Bengals will be establishing a running game and protecting the passer on offense, and forcing MSU to throw the football in tough down-and-distance situations defensively. ISU failed in two of three categories against the Bobcats last year, averaging only 2.3 yards per rush and giving up five sacks offensively, although the Bengals did hold Crawford to just 76 yards on a 3.2 ypc average.
Quarterbacks with Bengal Connections
Earlier this week, the New England Patriots released former Idaho State quarterback Matt Gutierrez after signing ex-Arizona State signal caller Andrew Walther. It was another chapter in Gutierrez' up-and-down pro career, which has seen him go undrafted, catch on with New England as a free agent, get cut, re-signed and cut again.
Meanwhile, Aaron Corp, son of former Idaho State wide receiver Chris Corp, a fan favorite on the Bengals' 1981 national championship team, heads into fall drills as the leader to replace Mark Sanchez as USC quarterback. Oh, and there are no expectations that go with the USC quarterback job -- even though Corp has never started a game for the Trojans, he's already been placed on the Davey O'Brien watch list.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.