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.

Monday, September 7, 2009

It Was Dollar Day for Big Sky

The opening weekend of the football season was designated "dollar day" for Big Sky Conference teams. Six BSC teams played "up" against FBS foes for total guarantees conservatively estimated at between $1.5 million and $2 million. Other than Weber State, who came back to give Wyoming a good game before losing 29-22, the Big Sky teams largely took their money and their beatings and went home. The BSC was outscored 244-41 in the six contests -- an average score of about 40 to 7. Only the Wildcats and Portland State managed to score a touchdown.
And More to Come

Weber State and Idaho State will play FBS teams for the second straight week this weekend, with the Wildcats taking on a Colorado State team that upset Big 12 neighbor Colorado; and the Bengals flying to Norman, Oklahoma to face a Sooner team that will likely be without its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and all-American tight end, but with a mighty big chip on its shoulder after losing to BYU on the opening weekend. Two other Big Sky schools, Eastern Washington (at Cal) and Northern Arizona (at Arizona) will also play FBS teams this weekend.

Saturday night was a frustrating one for the Bengals, particularly on offense. ASU physically dominated Idaho State upfront, and ISU couldn't run the football or protect their quarterback. And both their quarterbacks, starter Kyle Blum (three interceptions) and Russ Hill (one pick) made mistakes in reads against that fast, physical Sun Devil defense. Oklahoma will pose just as many challenges, if not more, with their great athletes on defense, so it will be very difficult for the Bengal coaching staff to get much out of these two games, particularly on offense.

More on the Oklahoma game later in the week. Meanwhile, while I was hanging out in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton in Phoenix Friday, I ran into former Idaho State linebacker Pago Togafau (above), who recently suffered a foot injury and was placed on the injured list by the Arizona Cardinals. Togafau, who was visiting with a number of his former ISU teammates and coaches in the hotel lobby, was gracious enough to give me an interview, the text of which follows:
Injured Reserve
1. Pago, I see you have your foot wrapped, that's not a good sign. Tell me what your status is?
Togafau: I broke a bone in my foot so I'm pretty much on IR (injured reserve) until I get a second opinion and get a settlement with the Cardinals and figure out where I'm going to go from there. I'm pretty much down for four to six weeks and when I get back up, we'll see what happens after that.
2. You've had a great experience in the National Football League, you got to play in a Super Bowl, tell me what that was like.
Togafau: Man, uh, something that you just had to be there to describe. Like I said, I could tell you a million things about it, but I'd probably say the biggest thing about it was just knowing that not everybody gets a chance to go to the playoffs, the NFC championship game, let alone a Super Bowl and I was two years into the league and I'm playing in the biggest game that football allows you to play so it was just a crazy experience and probably one of them I'm almost sure I won't forget.
3. Tell me about the experience of the Cardinals getting into the playoffs and making that run -- nobody expected you guys to get that far.
Togafau: It was actually easy, just knowing that nobody expected us to win, week in and week out, and to go out there, it kind of took the pressure off of us. I felt like we weren't going to let anybody down, so it really made it less stressful for us. I felt like it made it more stressful for other teams, because they were expected to win. For us to come in and, week in and week out, and for what everyone else saw as pulling out victories, we saw as just playing sound football and doing what we knew we had to do to win.
4. What was your role, where did you fit on that team?
Togafau: Me, uh, special teams, a core guy, just there really to give the No. 1 mike linebacker a break, also at the same time, just help the field position, changing the field position, helping our defense and our offense either get a good start on defense with pinning them back or helping our offense get a good start, whether it be on punt return or kickoff returns. Either way I felt like I had a part in it, rather than just sitting on the sidelines and not dressing down.
5. A lot of people underestimate the importance of special teams, but that's really how you got in the league, isn't it?
Togafau: You'd be suprised, a lot of people get a chance to feed their kids playing special teams. I just so happen to be one of them and I'm not ashamed of it all, especially with the opportunities that I've gotten, just the things I've been able to provide for my kids and for my family. And all of this doing special teams.
6. Tell me about your experiences at Idaho State, did you feel like you came in prepared to compete for an NFL job?
Togafau: To be honest, I did. There was a lot of carryover as far the defense that was run here. And even the workouts, we have a different kind of trainer, he kind of does a college workout. When I get here, it wasn't new to me. When I got here, I know a lot of big school guys, they never did certain lifts just because of the money within the program, they have machine weights. And this guy, he works off of free weights, which is what we were used to at Idaho State. That was another thing that helped me out.
7. Super Bowl is a media circus. It's two weeks of craziness. What's the craziest thing you observed during that time?
Togafau: (Laughing) The craziest would have to be a transvestite from Telemundo, man, dressed up as a straight woman and really believing that he was a she and just asking weird questions. It was just uncomfortable to see. I'm going to keep my mouth clean, but it was just uncomfortable to see that kind of thing. I don't know, it was just a weird feeling. I'm glad you guys didn't to be there to experience it. I took one for the team in that case.
--Brad B.
And thanks for being a Bengal -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.