Idaho State has lost 47 player games to injury through the first five games of this 0-5 season, and 38 of them have come on offense: including 10 to running backs and 12 to wide receivers. Meanwhile it's on the offensive line, the perceived area of greatest concern to the Bengals, where injuries may keep ISU, the lowest scoring team in the league, from making noticeable gains. With three-year starter Lance Cartwright and junior college transfers Travis Nuua and Demetrius Grant all unavailable for Saturday's game in Sacramento, the Bengals will once again go with a cobbled together front five.
Also missing Saturday will be wide receiver Isaiah Burel, who may be out for the year, and quarterback Kyle Blum, who likely won't be cleared from a concussion he suffered last week. Listed as questionable as of Monday were running backs Ben Laporta, Jordan Scott and Skyler Morgan. On the defensive side of the ball, defensive end Jake Rouser tore his ACL last week and is done for the year; fellow end Jeff Tuua, who didn't play last week because of a shoulder injury, is questionable; and both Sean Rutten (end) and Chad O'Donnell (tackle), who played against Eastern Washington after not practicing all last week, are still less than 100 percent.
None of that is going to generate any sympathy from the Hornets, who are still stinging after Idaho State got its only win of the year against them in the last game of the 2008 season. That Bengal win kept Sac from its first 7-win season since 2001.
The Hornets are coming off their first win of the year, a huge road victory at Portland State, 31-14. Sac put together two "statement drives" in the Rose City, scoring on its first possession of each half. The Hornets featured a balanced offense, with Terrance Dailey picking up 111 yards on 34 carries and QB Jason Smith tossing for 256 yards and 3 TDS. With Sac getting out to a 21-6 lead, PSU had to abandon any pretense of a running game, and the Hornets responded with four sacks. The Vikings finished with minus-2 yards rushing.
Unfortunately the Bengals are more than familiar with negative rushing numbers this year, having finished in the minus category an astonishing four of five games so far. With that makeshift offensive line and no established running threat in the backfield, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Bengals go with a lot of five wideout sets, three-step drops by QB Russel Hill and quick slants and outs by the receivers. Dink and dunk may be ISU's best shot at keeping Hill, who is still recovering from a broken thumb himself, from rejoining an already crowded injury list.
Only a Northern Arizona rally against Northern Colorado kept all four Big Sky road teams from winning last week -- and kept me from an 0-ffer. In the last two weeks, road teams have won seven of eight Big Sky games. And there are at least three good opportunities for road teams to get wins again this week against what may be the best slate of games in the Big Sky all season. And with those four very-difficult-to-predict games ahead, we offer this week's shots in the dark:
Weber State at Eastern Washington: The Eagles ruined the Wildcats' shot at an outright Big Sky title last year. With EWU sitting alone atop the conference standings at 3-0, WSU could conceiveably return the favor this year. But something just doesn't seem right with the Wildcats, who have blown two late inside-the-10-yardline opportunities to win games. More concerning is that WSU gave up 210 yards and four rushing touchdowns in their loss to Montana State last week. That's got to have Eastern's Taiwan Jones, who looked as good against ISU as any of those Oklahoma thousand-yard rushers, licking his chops. I'm going with the Eagles in a shootout.
Cal Poly at Montana: The Mustangs and Griz have a history of close games, even though Montana almost always seems to find a way to win. Last year, the Grizzles won in San Luis Obispo, 30-28, when the Mustangs missed a 27-yard field goal with 38 seconds left. Cal Poly is 2-2 this year under new coach Tim Walsh, with their losses coming to two FBS teams -- Ohio and San Jose State. Averaging 219 yards a game rushing, the Mustangs will run up against the nation's second-ranked rushing defense -- the Griz have yielded less than 50 rushing yards a game. Montana is coming off a bye week, giving them plenty of time to heal up and game plan. And Walsh, the former Portland State head coach, will see his record at Washington-Griz fall to 0-6.
Northern Arizona at Montana State: Man, this should be a great game. NAU quarterback Michael Herrick has been on fire the last two games, tossing eight touchdowns and no picks. MSU, meanwhile, comes in on a three-game win streak, including two on the road. The Axers average almost five yards a carry running the ball; the Bobcats give up less than three yards a carry. NAU has the worst pass efficiency defense in the league, giving up 12 TDS and getting only one interception; MSU ranks only seventh in the league in pass efficiency, throwing just 4 TDS vs. 3 picks. The only real discriminator I can find is in the turnover category, where MSU is plus-3 and the Axers minus-1. That -- and 17,000 Bobcat fans -- are just enough to tip this one in MSU's favor.
Portland State at Northern Colorado: These are two teams headed in the same direction: south. The Vikings are coming off back-to-back losses -- at home. The Bears, meanwhile, blew a two-touchdown lead in Flagstaff, after losing at home against MSU. PSU is second in the nation in passing, while the Bears lead the Big Sky in pass defense. The Vikings have no running game to speak of. The Bears, meanwhile, may be missing feature back Andre Harris, who carried the ball just once last week after sustaining a concussion. Again, you have to go to the turnover category to find a real discriminator -- Northern Colorado is even on the year, the Vikings minus-10. On the road, that's a killer for PSU.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.