The last time Idaho State won a football game in Ogden, Utah, Jim Koetter was the coach, Vern Harris, Todd Price, Steve Anderson and John Berry were the co-captains, and a sophomore from Highland High School named Merril Hoge was in the backfield. I'll spare you all the cultural references from 1984, but feel free to look them up yourselves. (Okay, I have to throw in one: Apple introduced the Mac computer -- above -- that year).
So the Bengals have 25 years of history to overcome when they play the Wildcats in Stewart Stadium on Saturday night. A big part of that history, as we noted when we previewed this game earlier this summer, has been the play of Wildcat running back Trevyn Smith, who has put up 667 yards of total offense and scored 10 touchdowns against the Bengals over the past three seasons. Smith has gotten off to a slow start this year, as WSU has dropped heart-breakers to two FBS teams -- Wyoming and Colorado State -- by a total of 8 points. He's yet to break the 100-yard mark, with the Cowboys and Rams limiting the Wildcat running game to just 2.6 yards per carry.
He won't get any sympathy from the Bengals, of course, who are averaging -13.5 yards rushing after their wire-brushings by Arizona State and Oklahoma over the last two weeks. Redshirt freshman Ben Laporta leads the Bengals in rushing with 28 yards in 21 carries. A lot of ISU faithful will be looking at Saturday night's game to provide an answer to the eternal question: Is the Bengal running game that bad, or were ASU and Oklahoma's defenses that good?
Truth be told, Idaho State's blowout losses to the Sun Devils and Sooners have left as many questions about this year's version of the Bengals as they have provided answers. Another answer Bengal fans will be seeking from Saturday night's game will be whether the Idaho State defense has really improved this year. On the surface, that may seem like a silly notion to ponder, after the Bengals yielded 114 points to their FBS opponents. But those who watched both games sensed a more physical Idaho State D, most notably when they stuffed the Sooners four times inside the Bengal five yardline early in the first quarter.
Idaho State's defense has largely failed to show in the last three games against Weber, giving up an average of 47 points in those contests. They will be tested again by the likes of all-conference quarterback Cameron Higgins, his two great receivers, Tim Toone and Cody Nakamura who are one-two in the league right now with 15 and 14 catches, respectively; and of course, the ever-present Mr. Smith.
Through all the carnage in Phoenix and Norman, the Bengals have given the appearance of cultivating some new playmakers on the defensive side of the football: linebacker A.J. Storms, defensive backs Chris Holmesly, Dustin Tew and Phillip Pleasant, and defensive ends Sean Rutten and Jeff Tuua. Saturday night will be the test to see if these were just mirages of optimism, or really the beginning of the development of a solid defense. The Wildcats, meanwhile, will be looking to answer some questions of their own on offense: they have coughed the ball up eight times, and Higgins has been culpable in all eight -- seven picks and a killer last-minute fumble against CSU. The Bengal defense will be looking to continue that TO trend.
On the offensive side of the football, ISU emerged from weeks 1 and 2 with no such cockeyed optimism. They come into Big Sky play with a still very large question mark at quarterback, where Kyle Blum's poor play in game 1 and Russell Hill's broken thumb before game 2 have not allowed ISU's coaches to put an end to the QB guessing game. I'm only speculating now, but I'd have to think Blum, who played better (remember, all things in such blowouts are relative) against the Sooners, will get the call Saturday night.
Then there is the issue of the running game. As unfair a test as throwing them up against ASU and Oklahoma was, neither Clint Knickrehm nor Laporta was able to generate anything to get excited about. Will they be able to find some seams against WSU? And ISU has held out Boise State transfer Stew Tracy the first two games because of a balky hamstring, but he was probably the most impressive of the Bengal runners in fall practice. Can he get into a running rhythm against the Wildcats and make a statement?
Finally, ISU will go to battle Saturday night with another question mark on offense, where leading receiver Isaiah Burel is doubtful after turning an ankle and reinjuring a knee ligament against Oklahoma. Kelvin Krosch or true freshman Roderick Rumble may be asked to step in and provide production in a passing game that has been limited to nothing more than three-step-drops, slants and quick outs by the athleticism of the first two opponents.
Third-down conversions are kept as an official stat for a reason: they frequently portend the winner of a close game. Given that games against FBS opponents have totally skewed the statistics, there is still enough validity to be concerned about how the Bengals execute on third down in Ogden Saturday night. The Wildcats held their two FBS opponents to just 13 percent conversion (3 of 23) on third down. ISU, meanwhile, converted just two of 27 of its third down opportunities. Even factoring out the level of competition, the Bengal offense is going to have to rise to an entirely new level to be competitive this week.
A special note to Bengal fans traveling to Ogden this week: Take your radio along and you can listen to our broadcast in the stadium on FM 102.1. See you in Ogden!
Shots in the Dark
I went 6-2 last week, and I'm taking full credit for calling Montana's close win over Cal-Davis and Weber's close loss to Colorado State. I also have to acknowledge being completely off on Northern Colorado's relatively easy win over San Diego and Cal Poly's route of Sac State. Here's a look at this week's games:
Northern Colorado at Eastern Washington: Troy Coverdale, the Bears' play-by-play voice, has pleaded with me not to jinx his team by picking the upset this week. I'm sorry, Troy, but there is just something irresistible about UNC this week. Maybe it's the fact the Bears have discovered a running game, with JC transfer Andrew Harris rolling for 152 yards and two touchdowns against the Toreros last week. Maybe it's the fact that UNC has played Eastern tough in Cheney in recent years. Or maybe I'm just throwing darts (probably the latter), but I'm picking Northern Colorado.
Portland State at Montana: This was my other option for an upset special. The fact that Montana is still playing quarterback roulette, and that I really like PSU's experienced Drew Hubel under the other center both tempt me to go with the Vikings. But it's awful hard to pick against the Griz in Missoula, and their defense has been terrific so far. It will be fun to see Montana cornerback Trumaine Johnson, who has arrived as a big-time playmaker, against the run-and-shoot. So I'll resist temptation and go with Montana.
Southern Utah at Northern Arizona: As expected, I didn't learn a whole lot about NAU after they lost to Arizona 34-14 in Tucson last week. What I do know is they gave up 365 rushing yards to the Wildcats. Southern Utah, meanwhile, features Austin Minefee, who is averaging 129 yards rushing a game, and put up over 100 in SUU's loss to San Diego State last week. Southern Utah has traditionally played well against the Lumberjacks, losing by five last year in Cedar City, and the T-birds are the last team to beat NAU in a home opener, 16 years ago. I'll go with Southern Utah.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.