Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"Playing Up": How Much Does It Help?

New Idaho State offensive coordinator Brian Jensen (right) is probably thankful he's not coaching in the National Football League, where three offensive coordinators got fired before the first regular season game was played. After the Bengals' offensive struggles against Arizona State in their season opener Saturday night, Jensen was feeling frustrated and concerned, but at least he didn't have to worry about his job.

A few message board posters over on the Journal blog questioned the Bengal play-calling against the Sun Devils, particulary in the second half, when Idaho State went very conservative. But on our radio show Monday night, ISU Head Coach John Zamberlin made it clear that the order to run the football and shorten the game came directly from the top. So even though ASU was packing eight defenders in the box and ISU's offensive line was unable to create any gaps for Clint Knickhrem and Ben LaPorta, the Bengals kept running the football.

And really, who could blame Zamberlin? When ISU tried to throw the football, Arizona State's pressure and excellent man-to-man coverage abilities, coupled with some bad decisions by Bengal QB Kyle Blum, led to turnovers. As well as Idaho State's defense competed Saturday night, there was no reason to continue to run them back out to defend a short field created by turnovers.

The unfortunate aspect of playing physically superior teams like ASU -- and No. 13-ranked Oklahoma, Idaho State's opponent Saturday night -- is that it's almost impossible to run your normal offense. The O-line can't create or sustain seams, the backs can't get through what tiny cracks there are quick enough, and the receivers can't get separation against the higher quality athletes the Bengals are going to see in their first two games this year. Down and distance situations wind up dictating throwing the football, and that allows very athletic defenses to pin their ears back and head to the quarterback. The only option, and the one Zamberlin selected Saturday night in Tempe, is to run the ball, eat clock and try to get off the field as quickly -- and as healthy -- as possible. And that leaves the offensive staff frustrated because they're not going to learn a whole lot about their team, and they're not going to be able to run a good two-thirds of their offense.

The first season I broadcast Idaho State football, back in 1994, the Bengals had a pretty good Big Sky football team. They wound up beating both Montana and Boise State, who were national playoff semifinalists that season, and they were led by all-conference running back Alfredo Anderson, a pretty quick athlete out of Miami who would go on to become Idaho State's all-time leading rusher. The Bengals played at the University of Utah that season, and the Utes had a great defense, led by all-American Luther Ellis, who later was the 20th player selected in the NFL draft. Nothing better illustrated the difference between a good 1-AA (now FCS) team and a good D-1 program than that matchup, which saw Ellis, a 280-pound defensive lineman, running Anderson down from behind in the backfield, and the Utes pounding ISU 66-0.

Oklahoma's great athletes on offense, led by their 1,000-yard rushers, Chris Brown and Demarco Murray, will put plenty of points on the board against Idaho State Saturday, despite the loss to injury of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Sam Bradford and all-American tight end Jermaine Gresham. The fear, however, is that the biggest mismatch will come on the other side of the football, where all-American defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, weak side linebacker Travis Lewis and defensive end Jeremy Beal will so dominate the game as to make it nearly impossible for the Bengals to execute much of their offense.

Thus, the theory that "playing up" can get you better prepared for games on your own level only goes so far. ISU has played D-1 teams in the past, like Ole Miss and Kentucky, who were in a rebuilding mode and did not have great athletes on the defensive side of the football. The Bengals were very competitive in those games, and could actually carry out a game plan on offense. Those contests allowed the coaching staff to identify strengths and weaknesses, and to get some positive carry-over for the weeks that followed. But ASU, who has as good a defense as I've seen the Bengals play in my 15 years of broadcasting, and Oklahoma do not offer the same opportunities.

It will be difficult to know how much Blum, for example, has improved his decision-making skills when he's running for his life on every passing down. It will be hard to know how much Laporta and third-string running back Stew Tracy can contribute when they can't get enough of a hole to get back to the line of scrimmage on a regular basis. And it will be almost impossible to get a read on the chemistry between Blum and his receivers when the wideouts can't get any separation in the secondary, and Blum can't take more than a three-step drop without getting sacked.

I fully understand why Idaho State is playing these two money games: you don't take a 12 percent hit in state funding for your athletic department without being impacted. Season ticket sales are down this year, and, with state tax receipts lagging below projections already this fiscal year, there is the likelihood of another cutback next year. ISU's adminstators could not pass up the nearly $1 million they will get from these two games. It's just too bad the NCAA denied Idaho State's waiver request that would have allowed them to open the season a week earlier against Division-II Western Montana. Having to play ASU and Oklahoma back-to-back and then opening the conference season at Weber State without a more fair test of the offense is probably the worst case scenario.

Shots in the Dark

Time once again to predict this week's Big Sky games. The good news -- I only missed one prediction last week, with Weber losing, 29-22, to Wyoming. The bad news -- that was the only competitive game of the week and picking the other winners and losers was kind of like picking the winner of a statewide election in Idaho. This week's slate has a few more tests, however. So let's get to it:

Dixie State at Montana State: Okay, I gave myself a break by opening with an easy one. The Red Storm are a Division-II team, and not a particularly good one, although they did beat Adams State, 38-27, last week. But MSU, coming off a spanking at Michigan State, achieved its goal of not turning the ball over against the Spartans, and they're playing at home. Dixie has been outscored 171-28 by its Big Sky opponents over the last three seasons. That's about the right ratio for the final score in this one.

Southern Oregon at Portland State: The Vikings ran the football more last week in the loss to Oregon State, which gives some credence to Jerry Glanville's pre-season promises to be more physical this year. Unfortunately, they lost all-conference fullback Bobby McClintock to a concussion in the process and it's uncertain if he'll play against their NAIA opponents this week. It probably won't matter, though. PSU hasn't lost to a lower division school since 1996, their offensive line did not allow a sack in 41 pass attempts against the PAC 10 Beavers, and they will put up plenty of points on Saturday.

San Diego at Northern Colorado: This one is a little tougher to call, being that the Toreros are a non-scholarship program playing on the road. Northern Colorado, meanwhile, is coming off a 49-3 loss to No. 25-ranked Kansas. The bright spot for the Bears was that quarterback Bryan Waggener completed 19 of 30 passes against the Jayhawks and threw no interceptions. NC's running game remained stuck in neutral, however, with Andre Harris getting only 22 yards in six carries. I'm going with San Diego in this one -- the Toreros are coming off back-to-back 9-2 campaigns, while the Bears have lost seven in a row, and winning -- and losing -- can be habit forming.

Eastern Washington at Cal: Eastern, we are reminded by the Big Sky office, is still appealing its NCAA sanctions, so is therefore technically still eligible for the NCAA playoffs. Cal, meanwhile, is still eligible for the Rose Bowl. And coming off its 52-13 beatdown of Maryland, I will give the Bears the slight edge in motivation. Eastern did some nice things in its opener against Western Oregon, by the way. Probably the most encouraging was the performance of converted DB Taiwan Jones, who ran for 122 yards and two touchdowns, including an 87-yard run. EWU's running game was sorely lacking last year. But I'm betting Jones' running totals will be about 100 yards less than Cal's Jahvid Best, who put up 137 against the Terps last week. No contest, this one.

Weber State at Colorado State: This one vexes me. Yes, the Wildcats lost to a very mediocre D-1 Wyoming last week, and yes, the Rams beat their Big 12 neighbor, Colorado. But the Wildcats really self-destructed in Laramie, committing 11 penalties and quarterback Cameron Higgins tossing five interceptions. I have to think having experienced the "speed" of the D-1 game a week earlier will allow the Wildcats to make some adjustments. And you gotta believe CSU will have a natural letdown against an FCS opponent the week after beating their rival. Will it be enough to overcome the physical advantages CSU enjoys?. . . No. Sorry Weber, I just can't pull the trigger and predict an upset again this week. But it will be a close game.

Sacramento State at Cal Poly: This is another head-scratcher. What do we know about Sac, afterall, who endured a workman-like 38-3 defeat by FBS UNLV in its opener? And what do we know about Cal Poly, who did not play last week, and is under a new coach, former Portland State mentor Tim Walsh? A lot of question marks in this one, but I'm going with the Hornets on the basis of what we do know: Sac got a 100-yard rushing game out of Washington transfer Terrance Dailey last week; they have an established coach and sytem; and Cal Poly is breaking in a new coach and new system without departed all-American Ramses Barden.

Montana at UC-Davis: This will be a good football game. UC-Davis always competes well, particularly at home, where the Aggies are expecting a sellout for Saturday's game. The Griz, meanwhile, are still sorting through their quarterback situation, although it appears Oregon transfer Justin Roper is starting to emerge as the frontrunner in his battle with Andrew Selle. Davis quarterback Greg Denham thew for 251 yards against the Griz in Montana's 29-24 win in Missoula last year. Still, I like Montana's defense and I think Chase Reynolds and Marc Mariani and Co. will get enough done offensively to win a tight one.

Northern Arizona at Arizona: The Lumberjacks open their season against a Wildcat team that didn't impress a whole lot of folks with a 19-6 win over Central Michigan last week. I don't expect a lot of from this matchup, quite frankly, with the Wildcats putting up enough effort to get a win, and NAU staying close enough to feel good about itself.

--Brad B.

And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.


Anonymous said...

Season tickets are down this year? Gosh, after coming off a one win season, I wonder why?

So what does ISU do? They create a schedule which almost guarantees two HUGE blowout losses to start the season. They ONLY schedule 5 home games. They don't play a home game until a month into the regular season. They kill any interest in this season before the first home game is even played.

I can already predict the blogs and "explanations" for next year. We'll be told that season ticket sales are down again, and that ISU needs to play 3 FBS teams for the money.

When do we break the cycle? It's not the coaching. It's not the players and where they're from. It's a serious need of new vision into the athletic office (and that doesn't necessarily mean personnel changes).

Anonymous said...

I agree 100%.

I would like to see ISU schedule more like BSU... just get wins, it doesn't matter who you beat, it really doesn't.

Anonymous said...

Next year's schedule will be more manageable: Western Montana, Utah State and Cal Poly, although they are looking for a "money game" to replace Cal Poly.

--Brad B

Anonymous said...

To my fellow alumni: what do you tell people? I mean, when people ask you about ISU football, what do you tell them?

Do you tell them that ISU prostitutes itself out for money?

Do you tell them that ISU plays games they can't win because the AD foolishly thinks it helps bring exposure?

Do you tell them that you know the whole idea is to win a game, but ISU just doesn't care?

Do you quickly change the subject and start talking about Boise State, BYU, Utah, or some other semi-local team?

Seriously, I can't take much more of this. 64-0. And I'm supposed to think this is a good thing because why?

Frank Mercogliano said...

I don't believe Jeff Tingey "foolishly believes it brings ISU exposure". I do believe he Jeff understands that given 12% budget cuts that playing ASU and OU brought Idaho State $925,000. Remember, if the NCAA had apporved our petition to open in August to play Montana-Western (as they did for Indiana State but we got turned down), then we'd probably be 1-2 heading to Weber State this weekend.

Oklahoma played for the NATIONAL TITLE...they have more pro prospects according to ESPN then any other team in the nation. No one is down after losing to them.