Friday, October 30, 2009

It Was Guard's Night Out

ISU's men's basketball scrimmage Thursday night was a showcase for the little man -- Sherrod Baldwin (right) and Broderick Gilchrist both looked smooth at the point, Amorrow Morgan was his usual explosive self on the wing, and Phyllip Taylor, who will not play this year because of academic issues, may have been the best player on the floor.

Baldwin, who has developed a funky-looking shot off the side of his hip, showed a new shooting range in draining several threes and scoring 25 points while splitting time between the Black and Orange squads. Gilchrest, meanwhile, looked like a natural in putting it up from beyond the arc. The JC transfer finished with 21 points. And Taylor showed an offensive game rarely seen in his spot appearances last year, putting up 23 points. After the game, ISU Coach Joe O'Brien told the Journal if the season started tomorrow (and the exhibition season does start Tuesday against UC-Colorado Springs), he'd start Baldwin at the 2 guard with Gilchrest at the point and Morgan at the small forward.

While the guards made the biggest impression, the Bengal bigs didn't get many touches on Thursday night. With Felix Caspari quitting the team and Demetrius Monroe out with an injury, ISU's depth in the low post is a concern as well. Seven-footer David Busma had 10 rebounds Thursday, but he remains a work in progress on the offensive end of the floor. Chron Tatum has a nice face up jumper, but at 6-4 1/2, he's going to be the object of some mismatches on the defensive end of the floor. Rolando Little showed the athleticism we've all heard about with a couple of follow-up dunks and shot blocks Thursday night, but he doesn't have an established post-up offensive game.

Big men, it seems, always take a while to get into the rhythm of the game each season. I'm not overly concerned about ISU's front line at this stage, but the Bengals are certainly short of depth there and they'll be placing a good deal of focus on better integrating the bigs into the offense before their exhibition opener Tuesday night.

Women's Notes

I ran into Bengal women's coach Seton Sobolewski at the scrimmage and he told me the Bengal women have been struggling with colds and sickness, as well as a few minor injuries. He's impressed with the talent of his large freshmen class, but noted the newcomers have a ways to go to understand his motion offense, and to figure out how to compete on a daily basis at this level.

Sobolewski said 6-0 C Ashleigh Vella from Australia is probably the freshman most ready to compete at this level. She had 24 points in an intersquad scrimmage on Saturday, where she lined up against fellow freshman Shannon Byrne, because regular C Oana Iacovita hurt her back warming up. Sharp-shooter Morgan Wohltman has also impressed Sobolewski early on.
With the early signing period beginning Nov. 7, Seton said he expects to sign at least three players, including one from southeastern Idaho.

The Bengal women open their season Nov. 13 at St. Mary's in California.

--Brad B.

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

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Long Season Takes Its Toll -- on Everyone

It's almost as difficult to finish winless as it is to go undefeated -- largely because the long football season takes it toll on everybody, and eventually even a struggling team runs up against an opponent who is just too beat up to win that week. For that reason, Idaho State's two best shots at getting a win this year are probably this week against a Montana State team that is struggling with injury and illness, and the last week of the season against a Portland State team that may be without its starting quarterback.

That doesn't mean Idaho State will suddenly be favored to break its 20-game road losing streak in Bozeman on Saturday. For one thing, the Bengals are banged up themselves. It seems the black cloud that tends to hang over the ISU football program just won't move on. The career-threatening injury to Bengal freshman receiver/returner Andrew Benavides, which came when he was on his way to a record day against Northern Arizona on Saturday, is just one more kick in the groin to the ISU football program. Idaho State had just two available (I won't say healthy, because Clint Knickrehm is hardly healthy) running backs in Flagstaff, they were without the services of receiver/returner JD Ponciano, and their offensive line is full of guys playing hurt -- or not playing at all, as the case may be.

The Bobcats, meanwhile, enter this week's game without the services of all-Big Sky defensive end Dane Fletcher (mono) and stand-out linebacker Jeff Price (shoulder). Running back Aaron Mason is trying to come back after two weeks off from a concussion, linebacker Chase Gazzerro "has a good chance" to play after two weeks of being injured, and starting offensive tackle Leo Davis is having shoulder issues himself. Not to mention the flu bug that swept through Bobcat camp last week, causing them to play without eight regulars, including their placekicker and punter, neither of whom suited up for the loss to Eastern Washington.

The Bobcats still have the best run defense in the conference (they're holding opponents to just 2.6 yards per carry), and one of the better running backs in the league in C.J. Palmer who has put up 240 yards rushing over the last two weeks. And they have a hot quarterback, Cody Kempt, who may still have to split time with Mark Iddins, despite's Kempt's recent strong play.

Idaho State Coach John Zamberlin has to make some quarterback decisions, himself. After several weeks of trying to separate Russel Hill from Kyle Blum, Zamberlin has a third entry in the quarterback sweepstakes -- Evan Mozzochi (above). The junior threw his first collegiate pass in a 4-for-15 outing against NAU last week and, despite less than impressive numbers, he got Zamberlin's attention with his arm strength. Coach Z will have to decide who gets the starting call in Bozeman, but even if Hill starts, I would be surprised not to see Mozzochi at some point if the Bengals fall into their recent pattern of getting behind early.

Hill threw for 350 yards and two touchdowns in the Bengal loss to MSU last year, and the Bobcats rank last in the league in pass defense, giving up over 300 yards per game. A lot of that is due to the fact that teams just don't have much success running the ball against an MSU defense that has yielded only one running TD all year. The Bengals, whose running woes are well-documented, certainly don't appear likely to threaten that Bobcat rush defense, so I wouldn't be at all surprised to see ISU put the ball up 50 times on Saturday.


I went 4-0 in my Big Sky picks last week, but I must confess, none of the games offered me much of a quandry. Ah but this week, well, it's going to be fun determining who wins the conference's most important game of the season: Weber State at Montana. So without further ado, this week's shots in the dark:

Portland State at Eastern Washington: This is one of those funky ones -- you'd think that EWU would be fired up with the word from the NCAA that they are eligible for the playoffs. They're playing against a PSU team that has really struggled, particularly since quarterback Drew Hubel went down a couple of weeks ago. But the Vikings have won the last three over the Eagles, the game is being played at neutral site (Seattle's Qwest Field), and for some reason, I just don't trust EWU not to immediately squander their playoff reprieve. The only thing keeping me from predicting a Viking shocker is that every time I've gone with PSU for the upset this year, they have failed me. Miserably. That, and the presence of Taiwan Jones, makes me go with EWU.

Northern Arizona at Sacramento State: NAU is still very much in the playoff picture with their 5-2 record overall and 4-1 mark in the conference. But the Axers have a history of collapsing down the stretch, and they play a schedule that would very much accommodate such a fold: at Sac State, at Ole Miss, at Weber State and a home finale against Eastern Washington. It says here the Axers will not survive that gauntlet or make the playoffs -- but they will get out of Sacramento with a narrow win on Saturday.

South Dakota at Northern Colorado: I tried really hard to care about this game and do some meaningful research before I made a pick -- but I couldn't. The Bears are playing pretty well at home this year and hanging in games with better teams, so I'm picking them in a close one.

Weber State at Montana: This is the one everyone will be watching on Saturday. A lot of folks are looking at the high-powered offenses of these two teams -- and their relatively average defenses -- and seeing a shootout. But I look at the way Montana beat the Wildcats in the playoffs in Missoula last year -- running the football and holding an 11-minute time of possession advantage to win 24-14 -- and I can't help but see a template for a Griz win. And I know that Weber State QB Cameron Higgins is going to see what has been a very mediocre Montana pass defense and can't help but think he'll be so over-stimulated to try to win this game by himself, that he'll make big mistakes. Since opening the 2006 season with a loss to Iowa, Montana is 39-1 n the regular season -- their only loss coming last year in Ogden. Make it 40-1 after Saturday.

align="left">Post-script: It's getting to that point in the season when we start looking at potential playoff scenarios. Montana obviously appears to be in great shape for a playoff spot, even if the Griz should fall to Weber on Saturday. The Wildcats, however, are right on that magical three-loss line and if they lose to the Griz, they will be treading mighty thin ice. Those two FBS losses to open the season could really come back to haunt them, unfair as that would be. As noted above, Eastern Washington got a reprieve from the NCAA and the Eagles could well be the second Big Sky team in IF: if they win out against Portland State in Seattle and at both Southern Utah and NAU. No gimmes there. I've already discussed -- and dismissed -- NAU's playoff chances above. That leaves one more Big Sky team with an outside shot at the playoffs -- Montana State. The Bobcats, 4-3, must win out against Idaho State, at Portland State, and at home against Sacramento State and Montana. The Bobcats will probably be favored in every one of those games except the finale against the Griz. And in a rivalry game at home, anything can happen. The Bobcats may be the darkhorse to get that second Big Sky bid.

--Brad B.

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A.D. Tingey Expounds on Programs

Idaho State Athletic Director Jeff Tingey responded to a wide range of questions from callers on our coaches' show Monday night, but he opened the show by updating the status of Bengal wide receiver Andrew Benavides (right), who was injured in the Northern Arizona game Saturday. Tingey said Benavides apparently suffered a bruising of the spinal cord and subsequent swelling, which led to some partial paralysis. The good news is that he was able to report feeling in his feet in response to touch. He also apparently had a ruptured disc in his neck, but doctors are uncertain if that was an aggravation of a previously-undiagnosed condition.

Andrew's parents and ISU wide receiver coach Drew Miller are with him in the hospital in Flagstaff. Miller will return to Pocatello on Wednesday, and Tingey will fly down to be with Andrew and his family as the recuperation process continues. ISU Coach John Zamberlin said it's far too early to predict the long-term impact of the injury on Andrew's football career, and that the most important thing is to for him to get healthy and regain normal functions. Zamberlin also said that team doctors have received a number of calls from Bengal boosters offering assistance to Andrew and his family, and he expressed the appreciation of the family and the football program staff to those in the community who have stepped up to offer help.

Andrew, I know I speak for a lot of Bengal fans when I tell you our thoughts and our prayers are with you and your family. The most important thing is for you to get healthy and back on your feet, and we're all praying for that outcome.

Back to More Mundane Matters

While Benavides' injury makes it hard to take seriously all of the other matters around the football program, we did have a lively discussion with Tingey, based largely on the questions submitted by our listeners. Following is a summary of the highlights. Please note these are my characterizations of Jeff's comments and I don't claim 100 percent veracity. I'd strongly recommend you listen to the show in its entirety once its archived on the ISU web site.

On the Decision to Extend Zamberlin's Contract: Jeff said he and ISU President Arthur Vailas made the decision before the season started to extend Zamberlin's contract two years because they believe he deserves a full five years to try to turn the program around. He said they informed John before the season they intended to extend his contract, but they waited to announce it because they were hoping to get a couple of wins. In hindsight, Tingey said that was a mistake and he would have announced it at the beginning of the season if he had to do it over again.

On Whether the Football Program Will See Any of the Money Generated by the Games at Oklahoma and Arizona State: Tingey said he allocated a portion of the money to the football program to be spent as Zamberlin saw fit, and the coach choose to use that portion to purchase an upgraded video system, new headsets and other hardware. He said ISU also allocated some money to the football program to be used during the May recruiting period last spring, and he expects some money will be made available again next May. (Coaches from large schools typically go out to high schools in May to evaluate junior talent and make contacts for the upcoming recruiting season. ISU hasn't had funding to do extensive recruiting travel during this period in the past.)

Did Tingey Mandate that Zamberlin Make Changes in His Coaching Staff When He Extended His Contract: Tingey said he did not. He said he is not a micro-manager and doesn't feel comfortable telling Zamberlin how to manage his staff.

On How the ISU Football Budget Compares to Other Big Sky Schools: In summary, Jeff acknowledged that ISU's overall football budget is probably near the bottom of the Big Sky Conference, but not at the bottom. He noted that it's difficult to compare budgets straight across because it costs more to operate a program in places like Sacramento and Portland, and therefore those schools have to spend more. He said ISU does offer the full complement of 63 scholarship equivalents and has the full allotment of 10 assistant coaches. He acknowledged that ISU probably pays its assistant coaches at the lower level of the conference, but noted that it is cheaper to live in Pocatello than many other places in the conference. He also acknowledged that not being able to fly recruits directly into Pocatello is a disadvantage in recruiting.

On Replacing the Turf at Holt Arena: Jeff said the life expectancy of the current turf is up in two years and he would very much like to replace it with something that is easier on the players' bodies, like the REAL Grass in place at Northern Arizona or the Field Turf at the University of Idaho. The issue so far, however, has been ease of taking up the turf. He said the staff at NAU told him it takes a full 24 hours to take up their turf, and three days to reinstall it. Because Holt Arena belongs to the university and not the Athletic Department, it has to generate enough revenue to keep the operation going, and that means a lot more use than the dome in Flagstaff, where once they put down the turf in the fall, it remains down until the following summer. New turf is in the plans for Holt, but finding a turf that is better for the players yet easy to take up and put down is going to be a challenge, Tingey said.

On New Facility Plans: Tingey said the decision has been made to initiate construction on a new softball field in March. The athletic department has lined up in-kind donations of labor and materials to cover most of the costs, since the land donated by the Papenberg family in the Driggs area still has not sold. Tingey said he is also hopeful that work can begin in July on a new practice field on the south side of the dome, and be completed in time for fall practice next year. A donor has been identified for the project, which would include a Sprint turf field. He also said the ISU weight room will be updated with new machines next spring.

On the Recent Decision to Pull Athletes from Practice Until They Get Their Grades in Order: Jeff said the idea to pull all ISU athletes, not just football players, who had grade issues from their practices until they made plans to get their grades up to acceptable levels was his idea alone. He said in many cases, athletes simply had to initiate a dialogue with their professors to clear up their grade situations. In other cases, however, they had to agree to a particular plan for how they were going to get their grades up. He said he received a number of calls from professors praising him for taking the initiative to give the athletes a "wake-up call."

On Football Retention and APR Issues: Jeff acknowledged he's concerned about the retention and eligibility of athletes in all programs, including football. He said ISU has avoided APR sanctions in the past because of an exemption the program has enjoyed from the NCAA because the school is in the bottom 10 percent of the NCAA as far as academic support resources. However, that exemption is going away in two years and "we have to pick it up."

--Brad B.

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