Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Bengals Need a "Sudden Change" When it Comes to TOs

Every year, somebody in charge of all the football coaching clinics around the country gives out a sheet with new "catch phrases" that all the coaches are supposed to use during this particular season. (Okay, not really, but it seems that way.) A couple of years ago, one of the phrases on the sheet was "sudden change," as in, "we need our football team to respond better to sudden changes in momentum." In other words, when we turn the football over, we can't hang our heads and give up points.

As cliche as it might sound, then, Idaho State needs to do a much better job when it comes to responding to "sudden change." More to the point, the Bengals simply need to stop turning over the football. Idaho State, who was last in the Big Sky with a minus-12 turnover margin in 2008, is already minus-8 in that category after just three games this season. To make matters worse, the Bengals haven't responded very well after "sudden changes" -- ISU has not scored a point after the two turnovers they have created (both against Oklahoma), while the Bengals have given up 52 points after TOs to their opponents. Minus-52 on points after turnovers is a good way to get off to an 0-3 start.

I bring all of this up not so I can steal Frank's idea of using a cherry turnover photo reference (although I did), but because Central Washington is coming to town on Saturday and the Wildcats are terrific at creating "sudden change." More specifically, CWU makes plays on defense. Last year, the Wildcats finished plus-15 in the turnover category and their defense sacked the quarterback 38 times (compared to just 18 by their opponents -- and just 18 by Idaho State's defense.) The Wildcats, under former Bengal defensive coordinator Joe Lorig, are continuing to make big plays this year, with a plus-5 turnover ratio and 8 sacks in their 4-0 start.

Turnovers killed Idaho State's chances to upset Weber State in Ogden Saturday. After ISU jumped off to a 14-7 lead, an interception by QB Kyle Blum led to one Wildcat score, and Stew Tracy's fumble in the second half led to another. The Bengals, meanwhile, failed to recover WSU quarterback Cameron Higgins' fumble when he was sacked, and that was as close as they could come to generating some "sudden change."

I've long maintained that the key to winning in the Big Sky Conference is making big plays on defense. Other than Montana, nobody's defense in this league has consistently shut down their opponents. So to survive in a high-scoring league, you have to make enough big plays on defense (defined as sacks and turnovers) to get your D off the field on occasion. Idaho State's defense -- with just 3 sacks and 2 turnovers so far -- is simply not getting it done.

CWU, who lost a lot of offensive firepower when quarterback Mike Reilly graduated and signed a free agent deal with Pittsburgh after last season, is living and dying right now off its defense. The Wildcat defense added D-1 drop-downs Prince Hall, a 260-pound linebacker who played at Alabama for three years, and linebacker Matt Ah You, a BYU veteran, to returning playmakers Jerome Woods, a safety, and leading tackler Buddy Wood, a linebacker. The Wildcats have held their first four opponents to an average of 7.5 points a game, 3.4 yards a rush and just 1 touchdown pass so far this season.

Offensively CWU is relying on all-American receiver and kick returner Johnny Spevak to continue to make plays. Spevak, who caught 91 passes and scored 20 touchdowns last season, has caught 25 balls for 5 TDS from redshirt freshman quarterback Ryan Robertson. Robertson has thrown 9 touchdowns to only 2 interceptions so far. He's joined in the backfield by another transfer, running back Randall Eldredge, who has averaged almost 5 yards a carry after coming over when Western Washington dropped its program this year.

I said it this summer when I first previewed this game, and I'll say it again: this is the biggest game in the John Zamberlin coaching era at Idaho State. It's the home opener after three predictable losses on the road. It's against a D-II team, and yes, a very good D-II team, but nobody is going to give the Bengals style points for a close loss to CWU. And finally, it's the first game in a series of "winnable" games for Idaho State after a very difficult opening schedule. A win Saturday could finally gain some traction for a program badly in need of -- yes, "a sudden change."

Seen on E-Bay: One Cracked Crystal Ball

When I saw Portland State jump out to a 14-0 lead over Montana on Saturday, I thought to myself, "Crap, I should have followed my initial instinct and picked PSU for the upset." Thank heavens I didn't, or I would have been 0-3 on an abbreviated Big Sky slate last week. The Griz came back big, of course, to beat PSU in Missoula, while Northern Arizona barely held off Southern Utah in Flagstaff and Eastern Washington shut out Northern Colorado in Cheney. I picked two road dogs in the T-Birds and Bears, and they turned out to be dogs, all right.

So on to this week's misadventures in prognostication, or, as I like to call 'em, shots in the dark:
Weber State at Portland State: No easy pick, this one. Injuries keep piling up on the Wildcats, who lost all-Big Sky players Kevin Linehan and Cody Nakamura in the first half against Idaho State Saturday, after having to go to backups at both DTs and center to start the game. I don't know the availability of all those guys for PSU on Saturday, but the Vikings have competed well against WSU in Portland over the years, with an 8-6 mark. (Update: Weber State announced this week that Nakamura is out for the season with a knee injury, but Linehan (shoulder) is expected to play Saturday.) Still, I love the chemistry on this Weber State team and I'm going with the Wildcats in a shootout.
Montana State at Northern Colorado: The Bears have a history here, too, and shocked the Bobcats in Greeley in 2007. MSU is coming off a bye week after edging D-II Dixie at home, and getting shellacked by Michigan State. Northern Colorado, meanwhile, created a lot of doubt about their "improvement" after getting blanked in Cheney. Still, I like the combination of new Bears power runner Andre Harris and capable QB Bryan Waggener. Montana State certainly hasn't done much offensively to convince me they'll put up big numbers Saturday. I'll say Northern Colorado in a low-scoring affair.
Montana at Northern Arizona: NAU, which had the best running defense in Big Sky Conference history last year, has given up almost as many rushing yards in its first two games (625) this year as it did all last season (658). Interestingly, Montana star RB Chase Reynolds is coming off one of his least productive games in his career after gaining only 32 yards against PSU last week. Do you think he'll be fired up to see the Lumberjack run D? The Griz should make NAU Head Coach Jerome Souers 0-12 against his former employer.
Eastern Washington at Sacramento State: Was that suffocating defense by EWU on Saturday, or just Bad News Bears offense by Northern Colorado? I imagine it was a little of both, but you can't help but be impressed by the Eagles' shutout, nonetheless. Sac State is second to the last in the league in scoring and total offense, which doesn't inspire a lot of confidence against that EWU defense. The Hornets have one positive confidence factor in their favor: they beat the Eagles in Cheney last year. But I don't think they'll follow that up with a home win this year.
--Brad B.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.

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