Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Curious Case of Two Big Sky Football Programs

Some things are black-and-white. Why is Boise State's football program so much better than Idaho State's? A good friend of mine said his law partner left Pocatello for Boise decades ago because, "you can find more money on the street in Boise than you can make in a year in Pocatello." Okay, but riddle me this, Why has Northern Arizona absolutely owned Idaho State, at least when they play in Flagstaff, for the last quarter-century?

That one truly baffles me. These two programs both seem so comparable. They both play in outdated domed stadiums in towns that have a lot more on their minds than their local college football programs. Actually, ISU probably has more rabid fans when you consider how they turn out for games in those rare years when the Bengals are good. Flagstaff, while a beautiful resort town, is a good two hours from anywhere. Pocatello is not quite as scenic and is three hours from Salt Lake, but it's comparable.

NAU has no football tradition to speak of -- the Axers have won one outright Big Sky championship (1978) and tied for one title (2003). The Bengals have two outright titles -- 1981 and 1963, and one tri-title (2002). And Idaho State actually has a national championship to its credit (1981), although the Bengals earned that one long before today's players were born.

It is true that NAU is doing a nice job of upgrading the facilities they have: they've installed REAL @ Grass in their dome, for example, something Idaho State is going to have to emulate soon if the Bengals want to eliminate some of the turf injuries they're suffering and improve their recruiting. The Axers also did something that former ISU AD Babe Caccia and some of his cronies tried but couldn't do -- they lured the Arizona Cardinals to Flagstaff for pre-season camp. The result was the installation of these two beautiful outdoor practice fields (above) outside the Walkup Skydome.

But none of that explains why the Bengals have been unable to win in Flagstaff since Jim Koetter, Vern Harris, Merril Hoge and company triumphed there in 1984, 29-15. In fact, while there have been a couple of close games since then (the Bengals lost 50-38 in OT in 1996 and 35-32 in 1990), for the most part, the games have been blowouts, with the Axers' average margin of victory just under 20 points over the last five games.

Well, we may be left to continue to ponder that NAU winning streak -- along with ISU's ongoing 19-and-counting game road losing streak -- after Saturday afternoon's meeting of the two schools. The Axers, who were coming off a four-game losing streak to end last season and then suffered several key injuries and defections in the off-season, are the surprise of Big Sky play so far. They are 3-1 in the league and coming off back-to-back road wins at Montana State and Portland State. Their only loss came in overtime to No. 2-ranked Montana, 41-34, in the Skydome.

NAU quarterback Michael Herrick, who shared time at QB last year after transferring from Ole Miss, is playing as well as anybody in the league right now. He's completed 69 percent of his passes for 15 touchdowns and only three picks. Wide receivers Ed Berry and Conrad Meadows and RB Alex Henderson have combined with Herrick to make NAU the second-highest scoring team in the league at 32.5 ppg. The Axer defense, which was hardest hit by injury pre-season, hasn't been terrific but, led by defensive end Isaac Bond, who tops the league with six sacks, it's been good enough.

If nothing else, the Axers should give Idaho State fans hope -- year after year, they are usually competitive and, every five years or so, they're good enough to make the playoffs. They do it by continually recruiting good skills position athletes on offense, and picking up two or three playmakers on the defensive side of the football. It's amazing what impact four good players can have on your program: an efficient quarterback, two quality recievers and a running back that can make people miss. Throw in a couple of defenders who can rush the passer or create turnovers and, wa-la, you are competitive.

Because the Bengals don't have a lot of those components right now, however, they will have to scrape and claw to compete in Flagstaff on Saturday afternoon. And if they can overcome the 25-year-hex of the Lumberjacks, well, you can forget Appy State and Michigan, that would be the upset of the decade in college football.

Shots in the Dark
Montana had to rally at home and Montana State had to win in overtime, but those two squeekers allowed me to finish 3-1 last week. My only mistake was in picking Portland State to defend home field against NAU and, as we're learning during this whacky Big Sky Conference season, hardly anybody defends home field these days. On to this week's Shots in the Dark:
Montana State at Eastern Washington: How depressed are the folks in Cheney this week? They lost another winnable game in Washington-Griz after, get this, the league office acknowledged they got hosed by the officials. And they lost all-American wide receiver Aaron Boyce to a ruptured Achilles. Well, EWU hasn't allowed a little thing like NCAA sanctions to keep them down this year, so I'm going with them this week, even though MSU is healthier and probably favored. Don't let me down, Eags.
UC Davis at Portland State: Wow, has the Jerry Glanville magic rubbed off or what? The Vikings, behind a backup quarterback, were throttled last week by NAU at home, and I don't see anything positive coming down the line this week with a good Aggie team, either.
Weber State at Northern Colorado: The Bears play good defense, especially at home, but they won't be able to slow down Cameron Higgins and the Wildcats. Weber continues to steam toward next weekend's shootout in Missoula.
Montana at Sacramento State: Griz fans are starting to get a little edgy, what with Montana giving up an average of over 30 points a game over their last three contests. And the Hornets have some explosiveness on offensive -- but not nearly enough to get this done.
--Brad B.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Molding the Bengals into Big Sky Contenders

Every now and then during basketball season, you'll see message board posts criticizing ISU men's basketball Coach Joe O'Brien (left) for being so, shall we say, "vocal" in addressing his players during games. Posters occasionally suggest O'Brien is intimidating his players so they won't play hard for him, or they'll be afraid to perform. I asked Joe about that on our radio show last year and he said he tells all of his recruits to talk to the current players before they commit to the program so they know exactly what they are buying into before they come to Idaho State.

I thought about that conversation Friday night, when I went to ISU's first official practice of the season at Reed Gym. There were two recruits sitting in the stands and I'm here to tell you O'Brien wasn't pulling any punches as he addressed his team during their opening drills. If either of those two young men eventually sign with Idaho State, they can't possibly be surprised at O'Brien's coaching style when they get here.

I also thought about how vastly different the recruiting process is at ISU compared to the "big boys," who were holding televised "Midnight Madness" festivities across the country that same night. Here these two young men were sitting on metal folding chairs in a quiet Reed Gym watching the current Bengals bang each other into the wall during rebounding drills. There certainly was no pomp and circumstance staged for their benefits. If they go home and decide to commit to Idaho State, it won't be because they were star struck on their visit here.

Recruiting is certainly critical to O'Brien and his staff right now, with the Bengals losing eight seniors after this season. O'Brien is hoping to sign at least four or five players in the early recruiting period, which begins Nov. 11 and runs for a week. But his focus Friday night was clearly on this year's team, which will be one of the pre-season favorites to compete for a Big Sky championship.

I filled out my ballot for the pre-season Big Sky media poll yesterday. Here's how I voted and why:

1. Weber State. The Wildcats return four starters, including first-team all-leaguer Damian Lilliard, from the defending championship team. Sure, they'll miss league MVP Kellen McCoy, but Wildcat Coach Randy Rahe knows how to get the most out of his personnel.

2. Montana. Anthony Johnson is a great player and if he's healthy, he's good enough to carry the Griz to 10 or 11 conference victories.

3. Portland State. This was a tough call for me, because the Vikings have a new coach, but they also remain one of the most athletic teams in the league.

4. Idaho State. I've seen the Bengals ranked anywhere from second to fifth in the pre-season magazines. I'll expound on them more below.

5. Northern Arizona. The Lumberjacks return several good, young players and Coach Mike Adras has a track record that makes it hard for me to believe NAU will miss the post-season for a second straight year.

6. Montana State. I'm just having a hard time buying the Bobcats, even after their big upsets in the tourney last year. Who will rebound for them?

7. Northern Colorado. The Bears made strides last year, but they lost their big man, Jabril Banks, and until I see otherwise, it's hard to believe a true freshman will completely replace his production.

8. Sacramento State. This one is a toss-up. With so many new players, it's impossible to make an intelligent guess on the Hornets.

9. Eastern Washington. Probably putting the Eagles too low considering they return their leading scorer and rebounder, but all the pre-season personnel problems just lead me to believe this program has some deep-seated issues.

Back to the Bengals: why did I pick them fourth? Two reasons, really: they lost Matt Stucki, their best player, their leader and their best three-point shooter; and they have been consistently inconsistent in Big Sky play over the past three years. History shows that to win the Big Sky regular season title, you have to, more than anything, defend home court. Over the past five seasons, the teams that have won the regular season Big Sky title have posted the following home court records in league play:

08-09: 7-1

07-08: 8-0

06-07 (tie): 7-1, 6-2

05-06: 7-0

04-05: 7-0.

That's a cumulative record of 42-4 at home by the Big Sky champions. Idaho State, by contrast, has been 17-9 at home in Big Sky play over the past three seasons under O'Brien, including Big Sky Tournament play. True, the Bengals were 8-1 at home last year against Big Sky teams, and normally that's good enough to win a title. But Idaho State was just 2-6 against conference teams on the road (2-7 if you count the loss to Portland State in Ogden), including a loss to a Sac State team that didn't win another conference game all year. If the Bengals are going to be serious conference contenders this year, they are going to have to repeat the same kind of home performance they put together last year and play much tougher on the road.

A good tip-off as to whether the Bengals can do that should come in the pre-season. O'Brien is playing his usual kamikaze non-conference schedule, taking on the likes of Oregon, USC, Bradley, Notre Dame, Utah, BYU, Utah State and Iowa State. During his time at ISU, O'Brien's teams have been 2-25 in non-conference road games. If the Bengals can actually steal a game or two on the road against that non-conference schedule, it might indicate they have turned the corner and can compete well enough away from Holt Arena to be Big Sky contenders.

Another important factor that will have a great bearing on ISU's success this year: three-point shooting. O'Brien noted in his halftime interview with Mark Liptak during Saturday's football broadcast that he's placed a heavy emphasis on three-point shooting during individual player drills this off-season. ISU was outscored 100-69 from the three-point line during Big Sky play last year, and Stucki had 24 of the Bengals' treys during league play. Add in the fact that Austin Kilpatrick, who also had 24 of ISU's BSC's triples, is out at least until November following shoulder surgery and freshman Eric Segert, recruited primarily as a three-point specialist, is suspended for the first semester and likely will redshirt, and you can understand why O'Brien wants to see improved outside shooting from the rest of his squad.

New point guard Broderick Gilchrest may provide some of the answer to the three-point problem. He hit 41 percent of his threes at Frank Phillips College in Texas last year. Beside Gilchrest and Amorrow Morgan, who hit 40 percent of his threes in conference play, improvement will have to come from within from players like Donnie Carson (27 percent in conference), Sherrod Baldwin (1-7) and Mike Lacey (who hit only 31 percent of his threes his final year at Northwest College).

Road toughness and three-point shooting: if the Bengals can "show me the money" in those two areas during the upcoming non-conference schedule, they can be legitimate Big Sky contenders. If not, I still like them to be a top four team that can beat anybody in the league on any given night.

Opponents Notes

The Western Athletic Conference issued its pre-season polls today for both men's and women's basketball. Boise State's men's team, who plays at Idaho State Dec. 9, was picked to finish fifth by the media and seventh by the league's coaches. The Bronocs had no player mentioned on the pre-season all-league team.

Utah State, who hosts the Bengals on Nov. 24, was the consensus choice of both the media and coaches to win the WAC. The Aggies placed guard Jared Quayle on the media's all-league team, and Quayle and forward Tai Wesley on the coaches' pre-season teams.

Notre Dame star Luke Harangody was named again as the Big East pre-season player of the year. The Bengals travel to South Bend to play the Irish on Dec. 1.

On the women's side, BSU, who plays in Reed Gym Nov. 21, was picked to finish third in the WAC by both the media and the coaches. Bronco guards Tasha Harris and Jessica Van Hoogen (formerly Thompson) both earned pre-season all-league nods from the media and the coaches.

Finally, Utah State, who comes to Pocatello Dec. 12, was predicted to finish seventh by both the coaches and media. Aggie center Lydia Whitehead earned second-team all-conference recognition by the coaches.

--Brad B.

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