Thursday, December 3, 2009

ISU Gets Another Shot at Utes

Still searching for a signature non-conference win, Idaho State runs right into the same University of Utah team they upset last year for the Bengals' biggest non-conference victory. Three big differences this time, though: 1) the game is in Salt Lake, rather than Holt Arena; 2) Matt Stucki, who came within one assist and one rebound from dropping a triple-double on Utah last year, is in Europe; and 3) the Utes are stinging from their 83-76 loss to Weber State Tuesday night.

The Bengals are coming off a loss at Notre Dame in which they played fairly well, trailing by only 3 at halftime, before the Irish ran off a 25-7 run to put the game out of reach. After seven games, certain patterns are starting to emerge for ISU: Demetrius Monroe is probably going to lead them in rebounding, Amorrow Morgan is likely going to lead them in scoring, and any other significant assistance is going to come from either Broderick Gilchrest or Austin Kilpatrick. Which means if the 2-5 Bengals are going to improve significantly and compete with the Utes Saturday night, they need someone else (Deividas Busma, Donnie Carson, Chron Tatum?) to step up.

The Utes clearly have issues themselves. They have sandwiched big wins over nationally-ranked Illinois and a good Utah State team between losses to mid-majors like Idaho, Seattle University and Weber State. Statistically, Utah is a reflection of its 3-4 record -- they aren't overtly deficient in any particular area, but they don't dominate any phase of the game, either. They have three players who score in double figures, but nobody who averages more than 13 or has scored more than 22 points in a contest. About the only thing that really jumps out at you when you look at their stat sheet is blocked shots -- led by 7-3 C David Foster (above), who had 10 against Weber, the Utes average over 5 blocks a contest.

If the Bengals are going to get their trophy win Saturday night, they'll need to get out of the gate early, like they did last year when they led by nine at half on the strength of 62 percent shooting. Weber also got off to a good start against the Utes Wednesday night, shooting 52 percent in the first half. The Wildcats cooled off to 38 percent in the second, but were able to hold on thanks to a 15-for-17 parade to the foul line in the final period.

As ISU tries to snag a big win, the rest of the Big Sky Conference continues to make some noise during non-conference play. In addition to Weber's victory, Portland State stunned No. 25 Portland on the road Wednesday night, and Sac State edged neighborhood rival Cal-Davis. So far this season Big Sky teams have assembled a fairly impressive slate of non-conference scalps: Sac State won at Oregon State, Montana at Oregon and over Boise State at home, Montana State got a victory at San Francisco, Northern Arizona won at Santa Clara and unbeaten Northern Colorado won two tournaments on the road and beat Colorado State of the Mountain West at home.

If you can't make it to Salt Lake Saturday night, Jerry Miller and I will bring you all the action on KSEI, AM-930, starting with the pre-game show at 6:30 p.m.

Bengal Women Give Encouraging Effort

Well, it wasn't a win but it was about as close as you can come without getting one. Idaho State's women came within an in-and-out shot by Kaela Oakes with just over a second left of upsetting the University of Utah women at the Huntsman Center Wednesday night. The Utes dominated the game after it went into overtime, outscoring the Bengals 19-3.

The Bengals hung tough against the bigger, more physical Utes through 40 minutes of regulation, despite Utah's domination upfront. The Ute starting frontline put up 44 points and pulled down 30 rebounds while holding ISU center Oana Iacovita to just 2-of-11 shooting and five boards. The Bengals essentially started a four-guard lineup against the Utes and used their quickness and outside shooting to stay in the game. Chelsea Pickering was four of five from three-point range enroute to a 14-point night and Morgan Wohltman added a pair of treys and 12 points.

While the Bengals didn't get the win, it had to be encouraging to hang tough with the Utes during this brutal run of games that started at Wyoming Monday night and continues at the Arizona State tournament in Phoenix this weekend. You can always explain to your team how tough the schedule is and encourage them not to get too down during that stretch, but there's nothing like results to restore some zip to the step.

At 1-6, the Bengals aren't alone in their pre-conference struggles. Only Montana State (5-1) and Eastern Washington (4-3) have winning records in the conference, and the only wins of any import have both come at the expense of the PAC 10's Washington, who has fallen to Portland State and Sacramento State. The pre-season favorite Vikings are in the middle of a five-game losing streak and, other than MSU (3 straight) and Northern Colorado (1), nobody in the league is on a winning skein. MSU is the highest rated Big Sky team in the Sagarin Ratings at 168, with Eastern next at 199 (out of 334 teams).

Frank's Growing Celebrity Status

Check out the Eye on Sports Media site to see Frank's growing celebrity status following his "breaking" of the Charlie Weis firing press conference. Hilarious.

Dark Cloud Section: Recruits Ignore

With nods to "Go Bengals!" and "bengalfan," I note that Hofstra has become the second FCS team in the last ten days to announce it is dropping football. Seriously folks, I fully support ISU and Big Sky Conference football. I do think it prudent to observe what's going on around you, however, rather than sticking your head in the sand. Having said that, I acknowledge sometimes coming across as too negative on these topics. I'll try to lighten up in the future.

--Brad B.

Obligatory rediculous (sic) signoff: And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Big Sky Play Starts While ISU Continues Taxing Non-Con Slate

While the rest of the Big Sky Conference kicks off league play this weekend, Idaho State will continue to fight its way through its brutal non-conference schedule. The Bengals got Sacramento State to move their scheduled league opener this weekend so ISU could fulfill its obligation to the University of Utah. The Bengals play at Notre Dame Tuesday night, then take on the Utes in the Huntsman Center Saturday.

The rest of the league, however, will be fully engaged in what can only be described as some pretty important contests for this early in the year. On the top of the BSC fight card is a visit by undefeated Northern Colorado to the two Montanas in the first test of the newly-reimplemented Friday-Saturday league schedule. The Bears open league play in Bozeman Friday night, then travel to Missoula on Saturday to play the Griz who are fresh off a win over PAC-10 Oregon and a narrow road loss to No. 14-ranked Washington on Sunday.

The Griz will open their league play Friday night at home against Northern Arizona. The Axers then switch opponents with the Bears on Saturday, taking the bus trip down the road to Bozeman.

Also on the schedule Saturday are Eastern Washington at Portland State and Weber State at Sacramento State. The Bengals don't open their league slate until Dec. 19 at Sacramento.

Northern Colorado has been the early season surprise in the league, winning tournaments in Hawaii and at Air Force on their way to a 6-0 mark. The Bears are led by 5-9 PG Will Figures (above), who is averaging almost 17 points a game, and is shooting 47 percent from three point range. Figures is also getting to the free throw line a lot (over eight attempts a game), and making 78 percent of them. UNC, who leads the league in scoring and field goal shooting and is second in scoring defense, has nine players who are averaging 5 points a game or better.

The Bears will be tested by a Montana team that leads the league in scoring and field goal defense, and ranks No. 3 in stopping the trey. The Griz are led by pre-season league MVP Anthony Johnson who is averaging 20 points a game, gets to the line seven times a contest and makes 93 percent of those tries. None of that comes as a surprise, but the biggest development in Missoula has been the play of 6-11 junior center Brian Qvale. He's averaging 12 points and nearly 9 boards a contest, and has 13 blocked shots in six games. The Griz also enjoy good offensive depth with seven players averaging 5 points a game or better.

Probably the biggest negative surprise so far this pre-season has been the play of defending champion Weber State, who was a solid pick to repeat as regular season champs. The 1-4 Wildcats have played an admittedly difficult schedule, but they don't seem to be hitting on all cylinders yet offensively. Ironically, a WSU team that knocked down 19 three-pointers, including ten in a row, in an exhibition game earlier this year is really struggling from three-point range now that the games count. Weber is last in the league, hitting just 29 percent of their treys so far, and they're also near the bottom (eighth) in defending the three, yielding 38 percent to opponents.

The Bengals, meanwhile, have also been a disappointment, even given the very difficult schedule they are playing. They have not even been competitive in games against Iowa State, BYU and Utah State, and have struggled in contests against the two lesser teams on their schedule. The Bengals are last in the league in scoring (63 points a game), eighth in defense (75) and eighth in field percentage defense (47). Those last two numbers are particularly uncharacteristic for a Joe O'Brien-coached team. We'll see if the continued run through the non-conference gauntlet helps, or hurts those numbers in the end.

Some Things Never Change -- Especially in Big Sky Football

Montana came back from a 27-point third quarter deficit and outscored South Dakota 47-7 over the last quarter and a half to win their first round FCS playoff game Saturday. Meanwhile, the other two Big Sky playoff entrants -- Eastern Washington and Weber State -- lost, to Stephen F. Austin and William and Mary, respectively. Which means that, for the 15th straight season, there is no Big Sky school other than Montana with a chance to play in the national championship game.

The Griz were once again saved by the incredible play of receiver/kick returner Marc Mariani who, in my humble opinion, should have been the hands-down, unanimous choice for Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year. No disrespect to two-time POY Matt Nichols of EWU (who threw for 461 yards in the Eagles' loss, by the way), but I've never seen anybody have as much impact on games as Mariani has over the last two seasons. I watched him up close last year, return a punt 94 yards from the coffin corner to single-handedly blow open the Griz' win over the Bengals in Missoula. Then I saw him make a huge catch to put Montana in field goal range to deny ISU's upset-of-the-century bid in Holt Arena this year.

On Saturday, he merely caught 12 passes for 170 yards and two touchdowns, and ran a kickoff back 98 yards for a third score on his way to 218 return yards. I know it's nice to have a great quarterback to build a team around, but if I'm drafting to build a Big Sky football team, Mariani is my top guy.

Speaking of quarterbacks, Nichols put a nice cap on a great senior season with his performance in a losing effort to the Lumberjacks. He had an outstanding sophomore year when he earned his first POY award, struggled last year without the assistance of much of a running game, then came roaring back to finish fourth in the voting for the Walter Payton Award (FCS Offensive Player of the Year). He also showed great leadership in keeping the Eagles together early in the season, when it looked like NCAA sanctions were going to keep them out of the playoffs. (The NCAA later reversed itself on appeal). Nichols put together one of the truly great careers of any Big Sky quarterback.

Another Big Sky quarterback from whom much was expected -- Cameron Higgins -- had a much more uneven junior campaign. He tossed four picks, including two that were returned for touchdowns, in William and Mary's 38-0 whitewashing of the Wildcats on Saturday. Higgins, who seemed to be mistake prone in big games, finished with 20 interceptions against 28 TD tosses this year -- compared to 13 picks and 36 touchdowns in his breakout sophomore campaign. Like Nichols, he seemed to suffer from a bit of over-confidence (call it "Jay Cutler syndrome"). He was also handicapped by losing one of his better receivers to injury in game three (Cody Nakamura), and by Trevyn Smith's mysterously ineffective season running the football.

I fully expect to see Higgins bounce back with a big year next year, but he'll definitely miss wide receiver/kick return star Tim Toone and Smith in the backfield.

--Brad B.

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

So I'm On This Road Tip, and All Hell Breaks Loose....

...Sorry I have not blogged in a while, but I've been tremendously busy trying to get life in order at Chez Mercogliano, and Chez ISU Media Relationville, and Chez Holt Arena, and that stuff comes first, but we are on road trip time for ISU basketball, so I have minute.

In case folks missed it, and judging by the fact that the message boards and Journal web chatter went crazy over this, but nary a peep was heard after this resounding news, maybe you did, but Idaho State is on a little road trip to South Bend, Indiana.

So we are over at practice today, and honestly, it was totally cool to see Touchdown Jesus, and to be amazed at the fact that Notre Dame, liking to keep things quaint, has this for a scoreboard. Anyways, I'm over there taking pictures, and i asked a very nice women who showed us around the arena when we got there a simple question...can we maybe get a chance to walk inside the football stadium? Figured this would be a cool thing, and Cody was curious. Well, as I was going to ask her, a person comes up to her and talks to her...and I give her space, and then ask the question about the stadium. She was like...maybe tomorrow, we just called a 6 pm press conference for football.

So I go online, and I read a report from the New York Times, which is since gone, because obviously the news has been updated...and I'm thinking "wow...I'm here for a little piece of Notre Dame history". Well, updated my facebook status to this...

"Well this trip got even more conference for tonight apparently regarding Notre Dame football, and now New York Times is reporting Charlie Weis has been fired...can't believe I'm here witnessing this...FYI, Notre Dame's SID staff is off the charts helpful and superb! Bernie and Sean rock", while I uploaded the men's basketball relase, which contained this...

"While the game is foremost on the minds of the Bengals, Idaho State is in the midst of watching a national media storm, with ESPN and other national media outlets having converged on South Bend to cover whether or not Charlie Weis, Notre Dame's head football coach, will be fired, despite having about $18 million left on his contract and the Fighting Irish going 6-6 this year after losing their last four. "

Now, do I mention that he was fired as if I was told anything? had no clue (now I'm not stupid either), but there is nothing there breaking a story, correct? Correct? Then I get hit with the news that I have scooped ESPN! Don't belive me, click on Eye on Sports Media and come back when you are done laughing.

Now, given that I don't like to be the guy in the news, I'm not overly comfortable with this, but I really didn't scoop anyone at all, but the notoriety from Chris, who really has a must read site over at EOSM, is making for some fun on this trip.

That all being said, it is truly amazing to be here during this can't help but run into someone with an's the talk of everyone. Hell, i got a pretzel at the mall today, and the young lady that was the manager was talking about it with me. It's when things like this happen, and then when I'm sitting courtside tomorrow night that I think to myself...what a job I much fun is this really? I mean, travel really blows sometimes (we left on Thanksgiving night for this trip, so I missed the Thanksgiving family movie for the first time in 14 years), but stuff like this cushions the blow. In the last month, I was picked by Jared Allen to give his induction speech in to the ISU Sports Hall of Fame, I've watched basketball games from Utah state and BYU, and now the Weis of my old friends Mike Pace said to me in a message on facebook "You live a fun life", and you know what...he's right. I try to be greatful every day...

An amazing time to be here for sure, and pure luck as well. Funny thing is...with all this going on, no one even really knows there is a basketball game here on Tuesday night, which is kind of funny.

Gothca, I have none really, and I know Brad is going to touch on this as well, but I haven't been around enough to know what's going on, and when I last saw John, it was prior to all this happening.

Personally speaking, I'll miss all three guys, especially Brian, who always came down a few minutes early to talk football with me, get the lay of the land so to speak. He has another child (his second) on the way, and a little more stable job teaching and coaching high school football is where his heart was for he and his family, and so I'll miss the guy. Sadly, he started hitting his stride late in the year with his play calling and figuring out what worked with our depleted group, but it opens a door obviously for the next person, which I'll get to in a second.

I know it was hard on John to make these changes, especially to Mike Havens and Cherokee Valeria, who really rebounded from his incident with a DUI over the summer. I always apprecaited the fact that Cherokee is a stand up guy, and I was glad he got a second chance after that. He did a good job of recognizing how important it was to give back to the community after that, and he did a nice job of setting up community projects like the elementrary school reading programs and things like that afterwards. Also, while the offensive line struggled, Mike Havens was in his first year with the line, but he played at ISU, graduated from ISU, and will always be a Bengal. I really wish all those guys well...I lvoe this staff, and hopefully John can bring in some quality folks, and I'm sure he will.

I don't however know who he has lined up, and that's the honest truth because again, I haven't been around (ask my wife...I have almost forgotten what she looks like). I know there is chatter about Mike Dunbar, but really I'm not sure. Someone with that pedigree would be awesome.

FYI, there is a court down in Holt...stands are around it, and there is an indoor track set up as well. Hopefully by the time I get back the pole vault mats will be set up so they aren't blocking my office door anymore.