Photo by Idaho State Athletics
Cal Football

Idaho State Preview: Visitors Are Probably in Over Their Heads

September 13, 2018
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Idaho State, which comes to Berkeley on Saturday afternoon, is invited to Memorial Stadium for one reason: to ensure the Bears a victory.

Coach Justin Wilcox and the coaches and players can sing the praises of the Bengals all they want, but if the Cal schedule were a Bingo card, this would be the free spot. Much as ISU (1-0) devoured Division II foe Western State, 45-10, in its season opener two weeks ago, it is moving up the college football food chain to be an hors d'oeuvre for the Bears as they prepare for Pac-12 play. A Cal loss is unthinkable and would all but ruin the season.

Idaho State, which had a bye last week,  has ventured into the Pac-12 a few times in recent years, and the results are downright ugly. In 2016 the Bengals lost to Colorado 56-7 and Oregon State 37-7. In 2014 it was Utah, 56-14. A year earlier Washington, 56-0. Going back further is too painful. A cumulative 205-28 is bad enough. 

Of course,  ISU has known very little success period the last 15 years. Last year's 4-7 record is being touted as a major improvement, especially considering it included included a victory over FBS foe Nevada in Reno. That was something Cal couldn't manage the last time it tried. The meager total of four wins was the highest since the 2014 team went 8-4 and the second most since a 5-6 mark in 2005. Picked to finish 12th in the BIg Sky the Bengals have had one winning season since 2003. No wonder 4-7 looks good.

Wilcox is trying his best to keep his team from complacency. He was asked if he was worried about overconfidence. "We respect every opponent we have," he said. "They have good players, too, they have good coaches. So absolutely not. Whether it's this week or last week or the next week. we really don't change how we approach the game. We use the information off the tape of what the other team has shown schematically and who their players are. But our team has a great respect for everybody we go up against."

Rob Phenicie, a prototypical coaching vagabond, is in his second season as ISU head coach.  He has been involved with nine programs including UCLA, UNLV (twice) Wyoming and Montana. He was Idaho State's offensive coordinator under head coach Mike Kramer in 2015 and 2016. He actually had left before the start of last season  to become OC at Northern Iowa. But shortly thereafter Kramer retired and Phenicie was hired as head coach at ISU. 

That coaching reversal is just one example of the unsettled situation at the 15,000 student campus located in the scenic town of Pocatello. Athletic director Jeff Tingey was abruptly relieved of his duties two weeks ago for as yet undisclosed reasons. And the season opener in the home field Holt Arena drew little more than 5,000, less than half the capacity.  Given how little revenue that contest generated, the school can certainly use the $625,000 it will receive on Saturday.

A closer look at Idaho State

Offense

With an experienced quarterback in Tanner Gueller (above) the Bengals rolled up 479 yards of total offense against Western State (the western state is Colorado, in case you were wondering). A fifth-year senior Gueller threw for 213 yards going 19-for-31 with an interception. 

"He has a lot of experience," Wilcox said. "He's a competitive guy, he's big and he makes good decisions." 

Gueller, 6-3, 235, has passed for 6,173 yards in his career, many of them to his brother Mitch, a junior wide receiver. That is a connection Wilcox did not recognize immediately.

"When I first started watching them I didn't look at the names, I just look at the jersey numbers." said Wilcox. "Then I looked at the names and put two and two together.  The brother's a big receiver. There are some throws and catches in there that are really hard to defend. Where he places the ball and his brother does a nice job of using his body.

"They do a nice job. They obviously have a connection going there."

Undersized junior Michael Dean, all 5-6, 155 pounds of him, actually led the team in receiving last year with 52 catches for 754 yards and eight touchdowns. He had a team-high five catches in the first game this season.

The Bengals rushed for 234 yards in the opener, 114 by running back James Madison, another fifth year senior.  Junior Ty Flanagan had 85 yards on 21 carries and senior Yancy Kieran 44 on ten. 

"Their backs are freaking hard to tackle,” Western State coach Jas Bains said. “You can tell they're big, strong kids.”

The offensive line is as big as the average major college unit, but it is relatively inexperienced. There are no seniors in the two-deeps.

Defense

The Bengals were one of the worst defenses in all of FCS last season, and were much improved, at least statistically, against Western State.  Idaho State allowed the Mountaineers just 135 yards of total offense, 28 on the ground.  Other numbers are equally impressive. ISU gave up seven first downs, forced three fumbles, recorded five sacks and intercepted two passes. 

Bear in mind it was a Division II opponent picked to finish tenth in the lowly Rocky Mountain West Conference. Still Phenicie was gushing at his press conference last week. 

"The defense played well enough to shut Western State out," Phenicie said. "Two turnovers is huge. You've got to win the turnover battle. And they hustled, and they hit, and they flew around and there was a lot of chaos, which is what we want on defense."

Wilcox said the Bengals defense designed by first-year coordinator Roger Cooper, gives the offense a lot of different formations to look at.

"They bounce in and out of three-down defense and four-down defense," he said. "They have a good edge rusher number 51 (outside linebacker Paea Moala). They play a lot of different zone coverages so they'll show you different pictures. We have a limited sample size from this year. But they're not afraid to get up and blitz you, too. 

"We are going to have to be ready for some pressure. They didn't have a lot of pressure last year, but in some games they brought more than others. We have to get ready for that."

Moala, who had 12 tackles against Western, is a senior from Reno, who was ready to walk on at Nevada before Idaho State extended the only scholarship offer he received. 

Cornerback Caleb Brown and linebacker Kennon Smith were responsible for the interceptions, with Brown returning his 28 yards for ISU's first defensive touchdown in two years. 

The defense is a tad undersized on the back end. Safety Adkin Aguire, who had eighty tackles a year ago second best on the team, is 5-10. Cornerbacks Anthony Ricks and Brown are 5-9 and 5-10 respectively and safety Christian McFarland is 6-0. 

Some newcomers made contributions on defense, Junior safety transfer McFarland tied for second on the team with five tackles, including two  for loss. He also forced a fumble and was credited with a pass break-up.

Redshirt freshman linebacker Aren Manu also made five tackles and forced a fumble, and redshirt freshman defensive lineman Hunter Eborn was credited with a sack.

Special teams

Freshman place-kicker Campbell Sheidow averaged 59 yards per kickoff against Western and converted all six extra-point attempts. He made a 36-yard field goal and missed a 40-yarder. 

Freshman punter Kevin Ryan averaged 41 yards on his four kicks with a long of 48. He placed one inside the 20-yard line and had a long of 48 yards. 

 Yancy had a 58-yard punt return to set up a touchdown. 

Overall

Cal has never lost to an FCS team and is not about to start now. With superior talent and numbers the Bears figure to overwhelm the visitors.

Phencie, who in his lengthy career has coached a game in the 11 other Pac-12 stadiums, will complete the "stadium cycle" Saturday. "I am looking forward to that," he said. 

He and his team have had two weeks to study the Bears, which might give them something of an advantage. The down side is the extra time he had to see what likely lies in store for his overmatched team, especially when it's on offense.

"I'll be glad when this one's over, and we can move on to the next one instead of watching these guys over and over again," he said. "They are a really solid defense."

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