Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Long Season Takes Its Toll -- on Everyone

It's almost as difficult to finish winless as it is to go undefeated -- largely because the long football season takes it toll on everybody, and eventually even a struggling team runs up against an opponent who is just too beat up to win that week. For that reason, Idaho State's two best shots at getting a win this year are probably this week against a Montana State team that is struggling with injury and illness, and the last week of the season against a Portland State team that may be without its starting quarterback.

That doesn't mean Idaho State will suddenly be favored to break its 20-game road losing streak in Bozeman on Saturday. For one thing, the Bengals are banged up themselves. It seems the black cloud that tends to hang over the ISU football program just won't move on. The career-threatening injury to Bengal freshman receiver/returner Andrew Benavides, which came when he was on his way to a record day against Northern Arizona on Saturday, is just one more kick in the groin to the ISU football program. Idaho State had just two available (I won't say healthy, because Clint Knickrehm is hardly healthy) running backs in Flagstaff, they were without the services of receiver/returner JD Ponciano, and their offensive line is full of guys playing hurt -- or not playing at all, as the case may be.

The Bobcats, meanwhile, enter this week's game without the services of all-Big Sky defensive end Dane Fletcher (mono) and stand-out linebacker Jeff Price (shoulder). Running back Aaron Mason is trying to come back after two weeks off from a concussion, linebacker Chase Gazzerro "has a good chance" to play after two weeks of being injured, and starting offensive tackle Leo Davis is having shoulder issues himself. Not to mention the flu bug that swept through Bobcat camp last week, causing them to play without eight regulars, including their placekicker and punter, neither of whom suited up for the loss to Eastern Washington.

The Bobcats still have the best run defense in the conference (they're holding opponents to just 2.6 yards per carry), and one of the better running backs in the league in C.J. Palmer who has put up 240 yards rushing over the last two weeks. And they have a hot quarterback, Cody Kempt, who may still have to split time with Mark Iddins, despite's Kempt's recent strong play.

Idaho State Coach John Zamberlin has to make some quarterback decisions, himself. After several weeks of trying to separate Russel Hill from Kyle Blum, Zamberlin has a third entry in the quarterback sweepstakes -- Evan Mozzochi (above). The junior threw his first collegiate pass in a 4-for-15 outing against NAU last week and, despite less than impressive numbers, he got Zamberlin's attention with his arm strength. Coach Z will have to decide who gets the starting call in Bozeman, but even if Hill starts, I would be surprised not to see Mozzochi at some point if the Bengals fall into their recent pattern of getting behind early.

Hill threw for 350 yards and two touchdowns in the Bengal loss to MSU last year, and the Bobcats rank last in the league in pass defense, giving up over 300 yards per game. A lot of that is due to the fact that teams just don't have much success running the ball against an MSU defense that has yielded only one running TD all year. The Bengals, whose running woes are well-documented, certainly don't appear likely to threaten that Bobcat rush defense, so I wouldn't be at all surprised to see ISU put the ball up 50 times on Saturday.


I went 4-0 in my Big Sky picks last week, but I must confess, none of the games offered me much of a quandry. Ah but this week, well, it's going to be fun determining who wins the conference's most important game of the season: Weber State at Montana. So without further ado, this week's shots in the dark:

Portland State at Eastern Washington: This is one of those funky ones -- you'd think that EWU would be fired up with the word from the NCAA that they are eligible for the playoffs. They're playing against a PSU team that has really struggled, particularly since quarterback Drew Hubel went down a couple of weeks ago. But the Vikings have won the last three over the Eagles, the game is being played at neutral site (Seattle's Qwest Field), and for some reason, I just don't trust EWU not to immediately squander their playoff reprieve. The only thing keeping me from predicting a Viking shocker is that every time I've gone with PSU for the upset this year, they have failed me. Miserably. That, and the presence of Taiwan Jones, makes me go with EWU.

Northern Arizona at Sacramento State: NAU is still very much in the playoff picture with their 5-2 record overall and 4-1 mark in the conference. But the Axers have a history of collapsing down the stretch, and they play a schedule that would very much accommodate such a fold: at Sac State, at Ole Miss, at Weber State and a home finale against Eastern Washington. It says here the Axers will not survive that gauntlet or make the playoffs -- but they will get out of Sacramento with a narrow win on Saturday.

South Dakota at Northern Colorado: I tried really hard to care about this game and do some meaningful research before I made a pick -- but I couldn't. The Bears are playing pretty well at home this year and hanging in games with better teams, so I'm picking them in a close one.

Weber State at Montana: This is the one everyone will be watching on Saturday. A lot of folks are looking at the high-powered offenses of these two teams -- and their relatively average defenses -- and seeing a shootout. But I look at the way Montana beat the Wildcats in the playoffs in Missoula last year -- running the football and holding an 11-minute time of possession advantage to win 24-14 -- and I can't help but see a template for a Griz win. And I know that Weber State QB Cameron Higgins is going to see what has been a very mediocre Montana pass defense and can't help but think he'll be so over-stimulated to try to win this game by himself, that he'll make big mistakes. Since opening the 2006 season with a loss to Iowa, Montana is 39-1 n the regular season -- their only loss coming last year in Ogden. Make it 40-1 after Saturday.

align="left">Post-script: It's getting to that point in the season when we start looking at potential playoff scenarios. Montana obviously appears to be in great shape for a playoff spot, even if the Griz should fall to Weber on Saturday. The Wildcats, however, are right on that magical three-loss line and if they lose to the Griz, they will be treading mighty thin ice. Those two FBS losses to open the season could really come back to haunt them, unfair as that would be. As noted above, Eastern Washington got a reprieve from the NCAA and the Eagles could well be the second Big Sky team in IF: if they win out against Portland State in Seattle and at both Southern Utah and NAU. No gimmes there. I've already discussed -- and dismissed -- NAU's playoff chances above. That leaves one more Big Sky team with an outside shot at the playoffs -- Montana State. The Bobcats, 4-3, must win out against Idaho State, at Portland State, and at home against Sacramento State and Montana. The Bobcats will probably be favored in every one of those games except the finale against the Griz. And in a rivalry game at home, anything can happen. The Bobcats may be the darkhorse to get that second Big Sky bid.

--Brad B.

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

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