One of my favorite songs on my I-Pod is Tracy (right) Lawrence's "Find Out Who Your Friends Are." After the debacle against Central Washington on Saturday night, Idaho State football Coach John Zamberlin is definitely finding out who his friends are this week.
The message boards lit up Sunday and Monday with diatribes on the state of ISU football. The Twin Falls Times-News was so concerned with the import of a loss to a Division II program it forgot about health care reform, Idaho's budget crisis and the war in Afghanistan long enough to editorialize in favor of ISU dropping down to Division II. (It was a shallow and misguided shot from the hip, but that is a topic for another day). And you can be sure the ISU coaching staff was busy doing damage control with potential recruits, trying to keep players who may have been interested in the Bengals from jumping ship.
The first set of folks to publicly declare they were standing behind Coach Z was a nice contingent from the Athletic Department who showed up for the coach's show Monday night at Chili's. That included Athletic Director Jeff Tingey and Bengal Basketball Coach Joe O'Brien. They know that Zamberlin and his staff have "taken two for the program," as Tingey said on our half-time interview Saturday night, by playing big money games at Arizona State and Oklahoma this year. It hadn't been announced yet Monday night, but Tingey also knew he was about to sign a contract committing Zamberlin to another killer game next year, at Georgia.
So out of that frying pan jumps Zamberlin and his Bengals into the fire of a Homecoming contest this Saturday against 17th ranked Eastern Washington, a team that is playing about as well as anybody in the Big Sky right now. The Eagles have shown they can win defensive contests (shutting out Northern Colorado, 16-0), or shootouts (56-30 over Sac State). They have discovered a new star running back, Taiwan Jones, to add to their terrific passing game featuring former Big Sky Offensive MVP Matt Nichols. They are, short of Montana, about the last team Idaho State wants to see walking down the Holt Arena ramp this week, while the returning alums conjecture about what ails the program.
Jones, who rolled up 279 all-purpose yards and scored four touchdowns against Sac State last week, is a good example of why the Eastern program stays competitive on a regular basis. Like former Eagle star running back Jesse Chatman, he came to the program as an academic non-qualifier and sat out a season. He got hurt early last year, then played four games at defensive back, before moving to the running back position in the spring. He's exploded on the offensive side of the football, leading the conference in rushing, averaging 8.3 yards a carry. He's also second in all-purpose yards and has scored six touchdowns. While Jones is an exception in that he's from California, Eastern lands a lot of Washington state athletes who may not qualify initially, but are willing to pay in-state tuition for a year while they get eligible. Chatman is the best, but not the only example of that.
Nichols, meanwhile, is back to the efficient playmaker who won the Offensive MVP award as a sophomore. He's completed 66 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns against only two interceptions. And he has back that great stable of receivers, but because of Jones, he hasn't had to throw the football nearly as much this year.
The Bengal defense, still hobbling from being on the field for 84 plays Saturday night against Central Washington, would love another five-turnover day like it generated against the Wildcats. Then they can only hope the extra attention Zamberlin and his staff are putting on the offense this week will cure enough of that unit's many ailments to keep the Bengals in the game. If the defense doesn't produce turnovers, Eastern has enough firepower to make it an early blowout.
Shots In the Dark
I went 3-1 last week and it felt good, even though both Weber State and Montana had to hang on by the skin of their teeth to get road wins. But that's what good teams do -- find ways to win in tough environments when they aren't playing their best football. My only misfire was picking a Northern Colorado team that is almost as ineffectual on offense as the Bengals to beat Montana State in Greeley. I'm done riding the potential of Bears RB Andre Harris, at least for this week. On to the games:
Sacramento State at Portland State: The over-under on this one should be at least 80 points. PSU has given up an average of 32 points and 419 yards a game -- and that looks good next to the Hornets' defensive numbers. Sac's opponents are averaging 44 points and 493 yards a contest. Sac's secondary doesn't have an interception in three games -- they'll get plenty of opportunities on Saturday and will probably emerge with one or two picks -- but they'll be watching the Vikings celebrate in the end zone a lot more. Sac hasn't won in Portland since 1985, and they won't break that string this year.
Montana State at Weber State: Classic matchup of a stellar defensive team that relies on a ball-control offense, and an air-it-out, let it rip offensive machine. Montana State has held opponents to just 2.5 yards per rush this year, and Wildcat running star Trevyn Smith has had only one 100-yard game this season (against the Bengals, of course). But it won't matter if the Bobcats shut down Weber's running game -- the real Cameron Higgins is back at QB for the Wildcats. After tossing seven picks against two D-1 schools to start the season, Higgins has passed for seven touchdowns and no picks in Big Sky play. He'll be the difference in Ogden, where surprisingly Weber hasn't beaten MSU since 1996, on Saturday night.
Northern Colorado at Northern Arizona: Idaho State is in the middle of a school-record road losing streak (17 and counting), but the Bears are in a worse rut, believe it or not. Northern Colorado has lost 19 straight road games and is 0-13 in its Big Sky travels. You can add one more to both those counts after Saturday. NAU QB Michael Herrick is coming off a monster game (440 yards) against Montana last week, and he won't need to play nearly that well against a Northern Colorado team that has scored just seven points in its last 127 minutes and 59 seconds of play.
And thanks for being a Bengal -- it ain't always easy (especially this week!) -- but it's always fun.