Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Have Seen the Future -- On the All-BSC Team

I have seen the future of Idaho State football, and it's on the all-Big Sky Conference team announced today. Playmakers are what it takes to win in this league and the Bengals are starting to develop them in key positions: first-team all-Big Sky linebacker AJ Storms (left), and honorable mention all-leaguers Chris Holmesly (safety), Phi Arias (linebacker) and Kelvin Krosch (wide receiver).

Those four players will be the foundation of Idaho State football next fall. Storms and Arias actually have two years left to form one of the better linebacker tandems in the league, and Krosch has the same amount of time to build on his "coming out" performances against Montana and Portland State at the end of this season. Holmesly, meanwhile, has another year to add to his five turnovers, 3.5 tackles for a loss and blocked extra point, among other "impact plays."

That's a good starting point, but obviously not good enough for a team that finished with one win for the second straight year. On defense, the line must continue to improve, and in particular, the Bengals must either find, or develop some pass rushers. On the offensive side, meanwhile, the lack of speed in the backfield and the ongoing question about whether the current stable of quarterbacks can get the job done must both be addressed. And the offensive line, who will lose its only honorable mention all-leaguer in center Ryan Henry, also needs fortification.

The Bengals can start addressing those issues as early as Dec. 16, which is the beginning of the signing period for mid-year junior college transfers. That period extends through Jan. 15. The first day high school players and fall junior college transfers can sign is Feb. 3.

On to the Playoffs

I went out on a limb in my final week of Big Sky picks last week -- and got sawed off. Montana went into Bozeman and got the win while Sac State held off Cal-Davis to drop me to 2-2. I did foresee the Eastern Washington shootout win over Northern Arizona and Weber's victory over Cal Poly. I was also wrong in guessing that the Wildcats would be left out of the playoffs with a 7-4 mark. The Big Sky league office did a nice job making the case for Weber's strength of schedule, which included two narrow loses to FBS teams to start the season. Here's a look at the Big Sky's three playoff matchups this week:

South Dakota State at Montana: Even though the Jackrabbits just moved up to the FCS in 2004 and this is their first playoff appearance, these two teams have some history -- all of it bad for the Jackrabbits. The Griz are 6-0 in the series, including one of the great comebacks in Montana history in 1993, when legendary quarterback Dave Dickenson rallied Montana from a 38-13 fourth-quarter deficit. The Griz scored 39 fourth quarter points in that one. South Dakota finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference behind Southern Illinois, losing to the Salukis and Cal Poly on the FCS level, and to the Big 10's Minnesota just 16-13. The Griz, meanwhile, handled Cal Poly 35-23 in Missoula, and, as the No. 1 seed, will be favored to raise their playoff record at Washington-Grizzly Stadium to 25-6.

Eastern Washington at Stephen F. Austin: The Southland Conference has been traditionally one of the weaker FCS leagues. The Big Sky is 23-9 all-time against the conference in the playoffs, including 5-1 over the last five years. This game should be a fun one to watch, as it matches two quarterbacks (SFA's Jeremy Moses and EWU's Matt Nichols) who have combined for over 6,800 yards and 66 touchdown passes this year. The Eagles, who are in the playoffs for the second time in three years and the fourth in six, have the edge in experience over a Lumberjack program that hasn't been to the postseason since 1995.

Weber State at William and Mary: Only football fans as old as me remember the LA Times' feature, "The Bottom Ten," where Randy Harvey would skewer the worst college programs in the nation. Bill and Mary was a regular on that list in those days, but not recently. The Tribe is one of three teams from the top-ranked Colonial Athletic Conference to get at-large bids, and they lead the nation in rushing defense, are third in total defense and seventh in scoring D. Bill and Mary got Virginia's attention earlier this year, when they rose up to shock the Atlantic Coast Conference Cavaliers. Weber, meanwhile, is in the playoffs for the second year in a row, but only the fourth time in Wildcat history. They got a win last year at Cal Poly before being "rewarded" for their regular season victory over Montana with a trip to Missoula -- and a second-round loss.

Northeastern Drops Football

While we're on the topic of FCS football, it is worth noting that Northeastern has made the decision to discontinue its 74-year-old football program. The interesting thing is that the school arrived at the decision not so much because of current conditions surrounding the $3 million-a-year program, but rather by taking a strategic look at what lay ahead. School officials determined they'd have to spend millions more a year in order to upgrade facilities and give the program the weapons it needed to be competitive. They chose not to make that investment.

Northeastern's action follows by 12 years the decision by its neighbor, Boston U, to drop its football program after 91 years and redirect the money to build an athletic complex and boost women's sports programs. With a moratorium on programs moving up to the FBS level ending in August of 2011, I expect a lot of current FCS programs to take a hard, strategic look at the future of their football programs -- with some deciding to make the jump to the FBS, and others following Northeastern's lead and getting out of football. FCS football is a lot of things, including exciting in my view -- but a money-maker it is not.
Return of an Old Friend

I thoroughly enjoyed visiting with ISU women's basketball coach Seton Sobelewski and two of his players, Oana Iacovita and Chelsea Pickering, on the Chili's Coaches Show Monday night. The Bengal women are looking for their first victory of the season tonight against NAIA member Western Montana at Reed Gym. Turnovers will likely be a key stat for both teams, each of whom are averaging over 24 miscues a game. The Bengals will be looking to get more stable play out of their point guards, Andrea Videbeck and Kaela Oakes, who are averaging a combined 12 turnovers a game.

Seton talked about preparing his team for their very difficult pre-season schedule, and added that he and his staff have learned from the scheduling experience. They will play only two "killer" games next year, Texas and Texas Tech, and far more "winnable" games against comparable mid-majors. One of those will be against Air Force Academy and former Bengal Coach Ardie McInelly, who will bring her club to Reed Gym next year. Coming with her will be former Blackfoot star Raimee Beck, a 5-8 guard for the Falcons, and ex-ISU players Cassie Bro and Holly Togiai, who are on McInelly's coaching staff.

How Sweet Would a Men's Win Be?

The last time Idaho State beat Utah State, I was a 24-year-old sportswriter for the Journal, the Bengals were just coming off a national championship in football and Jerry Miller and I both still had dark hair. Ah, those were the days.

But that was 1981 and very few teams have beaten the Aggies at the Spectrum since. Utah State has won 34 straight at home and under coach Stew Morrill, they have won 92 percent of their games at home -- 94 percent against non-conference foes. Still, this might be Idaho State's best shot at the Aggies in a while. USU center Nate Bendal was taken to a Boston hospital with breathing irregularities after the Aggies' lost to Northeastern on Saturday, and, while he may be cleared for tonight's game, he'll be watched closely.

Just judging from the first three games of this year, this is one of the thinnest Aggie teams in recent memory. Other than the USU starting five, only one Aggie is averaging more than 5 points a game, and nobody snares as many as three rebounds a game off the Utah State bench. If the Bengals can get off to a solid start and hang with the Aggies early, ISU may actually have a manpower advantage going down the stretch.

Getting a big nonconference win on the road would be a huge boost to the Bengals' collective confidence level -- especially after both Montana and Northern Colorado have already made impressive statements on the road. The Griz beat future ISU opponent Oregon in Eugene Monday night, and Northern Colorado has won two tournament titles on the road in building its 5-0 start. While good non-conference starts guarantee nothing once league play begins and Northern Colorado has to open BSC play with three on the road, there's nothing like a quality road win to boost the spirits.
PS: Happy Thanksgiving to all you Bengals out there, and to your family and friends!

--Brad B.

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