Tuesday, October 13, 2009

This Week's Matchup: Road Warriors They Are Not

Oct. 11, 2008 will go down as one of those truly ugly days in Idaho State football history. On a day dampened by wind, rain and snow, the Bengals lost to a bad Northern Colorado team, 29-9, in a game noteworthy only for the fact that there were three safeties recorded (ISU's on the blocked punt by Jeremy Gibson at left). The two teams slogged through a scoreless second half that saw many of the 4,000 Bears homecoming fans long gone by its conclusion.

To add to the overall gloom of the affair, 300 miles to the southwest of Greeley, in Grand Junction, Colo., Flo Gallagher, the wife of former ISU vice-president and interim President Mike Gallagher, was gunned down that morning by a total stranger in a random shooting spree. I remember leaving the press box in Greeley that day, my muscles aching from hunching up against the cold, and feeling about as depressed as you can get at a football game.

Bengal quarterback Russel Hill surely shared in the ennui. He threw four interceptions and no touchdowns in the game, and saw his consecutive string of 300-yard passing games end at four. He also must have felt the sense of doubt that was creeping in among Bengal coaches, who were starting to wonder if they shouldn't give backup Kyle Blum a shot.

Here we are almost exactly a year later, and not a lot has changed for either of these programs. The coaches of both teams -- ISU's John Zamberlin and UNC's Scott Downing -- are both in the final years of their respective contracts, and wondering what the future holds. The Bears haven't won a conference game since beating Idaho State, their only victory in that timeframe coming over non-scholarship San Diego earlier this season. And UNC still hasn't won a league road game since joining the Big Sky in 2006.

Idaho State, meanwhile, has managed a single win over Sacramento State to end the 2008 season. The Bengals are in the midst of an 18-game road losing streak, and they haven't won away from home since beating the Bears in Greeley in 2006.

Hill, meanwhile, is still battling for his quarterback job, having lost the starting position to Blum in game No. 11 last year, and regaining it, partly by default and Blum's concussion, just last week against Sac State. The Boise junior came out firing, hitting his first 10 throws, but the interception bug jumped up and bit him big-time once again in the form of two pick-sixes on consecutive possessions to end the first half of the 38-17 loss to the Hornets.

UNC comes to Holt Arena this Saturday off a 23-18 homecoming loss to Portland State last week. The Bears share a lot of commonalities with the Bengals: neither plays well on the road, neither runs the football particularly well, and both are struggling to put points on the board, even when they get in the proverbial "red zone." The one area where the Bears are much better, at least statistically, than Idaho State is defending the pass. And that's a critical area, because, even though Idaho State was able to muster something of a running game last week in Sacramento, everyone expects Hill to throw the ball another 40-plus times on Saturday.

That suits the Bears just fine. They lead the Big Sky in pass defense, while ranking just eighth against the run. (Yes, there may be a slight correlation there.) Still, UNC is the only Big Sky team to give up fewer than 200 passing yards a game (196), and they are tied with Weber State at the top of the league with seven interceptions. The return of linebacker John Eddy, out almost a year with various injuries, also boosted the Bear pass rush as he was in on 2.5 sacks against Portland State last week.

The Bengals, who have tossed 11 picks vs. just six touchdowns so far this season, will certainly try to establish some kind of ground game vs. a UNC defense that has given up 4.6 yards per carry. They're hopeful the return to health of linemen Travis Nuua and Lance Carwright and back Clint Knickrehm will give a boost to the run game. But if that doesn't work out, the pressure will be on Hill and his receivers to reverse the negative feelings of that October day in Greeley.

The Halfway Point

Every team in the Big Sky either arrives at the mid-point or goes beyond with a full slate of games this weekend. By far, the most noticeable trend is the inability of teams to protect home field. Three of five conference teams lost at home last week and over the last three weeks the visitors have won 10 of 12 conference games. Road teams are 10-5 so far in the league -- last year, road teams won only 15 times over the course of the entire season.

Last week, I fell victim to three road winners: Weber State at Eastern Washington, Portland State over UNC and NAU winning at Montana State. For the second straight week I got only one game right: Montana coming from behind to beat Cal Poly in Missoula. Undeterred, I again offer you this week's shots in the dark:

Eastern Washington at Montana: Clearly the game of the week. The Eagles blew a great opportunity to make this a match up of conference unbeatens, falling to Weber State 31-14 last week at home. Still, EWU is one of only two Big Sky teams (MSU is the other) to beat the Griz twice this decade. Montana needed a late field goal to edge the Eagles by a point the last time they played in Missoula in 2007. The key matchup in this game is between Eagle RB Taiwan Jones, he of the breakaway ability, and a Griz defense that has not allowed a run longer than 17 yards this year. It says here that Montana's disciplined defense is too much for Jones and the Eagles.

South Dakota at Montana State: This is a classic matchup between a team that relies on the run (South Dakota has scored 14 rushing touchdowns this season and is averaging over 190 yards a game on the ground), and a team that doesn't give up rushing yards (MSU has not allowed a rushing touchdown this year, and allows just 72.8 yards per game). The Bobcats pounded the football on SD in a 38-17 win last year, also in Bozeman. Both teams are coming off losses, the Coyotes 24-23 to a good Cal Davis team. I think South Dakota will make a much better game of it this year, but the Bobcats still win a close one.

Northern Arizona at Portland State: My upset special of the week. The Axers are coming off a surprising win in Bozeman, and their quarterback, Michael Herrick, is red hot, throwing nine touchdowns against just one pick over the last three weeks. The Vikings, meanwhile, will be playing without starting quarterback Drew Hubel, out with a knee injury. But I like PSU because neither of these teams run the football very well, and that should finally catch up with NAU on the road. And I actually believe PSU's backup quarterback, Cameron Kavanaugh, adds the much needed dimension of scrambling ability to the Vikings offense. Portland State gets the win.
Sac at Weber
Sacramento State at Weber State: At this point in the season, teams are starting to feel the cumulative impacts of injuries. But some lucky teams are also enjoying the boost that comes from getting an injured starter back in the lineup. The Wildcats are just such a team. Defensive tackle Ryan Eastman, on the injured list for three games, returned against Eastern Washington last week with a vengeance. He earned the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week award with three sacks and 3.5 tackles for a loss. The Wildcats held EWU to just 35 rushing yards on 27 attempts last week. If WSU can keep the Hornets' running game in similar check on Saturday in Ogden -- and I think they will -- that will be a Wildcat victory.
--Brad B.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.

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