Following a game that featured two completely different offensive styles, Idaho State head football coach Rob Phenicie entered his postgame press conference with a gifted Hawaiian charm necklace worn by the heads of warriors draped around his neck. In his pocket was a Native American warrior strap that he showed off to the media as he talked through his team’s 38-34 homecoming win over Cal Poly.
“We may have to win games that way and it is tough,” Phenicie said. “The guys didn’t quit fighting.”
Idaho State (3-2, 1-1 BSC) raced to an early 10-0 lead through a near flawless first quarter, before Cal Poly (0-5, 0-2 BSC) marched 17 unanswered points off the board by way of its triple option offense, and eventually took a 31-17 third quarter lead, forcing Idaho State to make a second half comeback for the second week in a row.
“We are out there for what seems like 30 seconds and then they get the ball and you look up and go, ‘dang, seven minutes is off the clock,’” said wide receiver Michael Dean.
The Mustangs, who had already tacked off scoring drives of 13, 14 and 16 plays, taking up over five-and-a-half minutes each time, needed to go 75 yards in the final 6:41 where only a touchdown would do. Cal Poly ran three plays, punted the ball back to Idaho State and never took another offensive snap.
“It’s rough,” said defensive lineman JonRhyeem Peoples who had a career-high 14 tackles. “Inside guys have one job and that is to beat their blocks. You are only going to see cuts, double-teams or base blocks so with only three blocks, it’s just beat your block, don’t get cut and make sure you are running to the ball.”
The third quarter opened with a five-play, 71-yard Cal Poly touchdown drive that ended when a wide-open Kyle Lewis hauled in his only reception of the afternoon, a 65-yard touchdown pass from Cal Poly quarterback Khaleel Jenkins.
“It is never fun playing that offense,” Phenicie said. “I hate seeing it because you never know. I said earlier in the week to watch for the passing plays and they got us.”
The Mustangs then began to run left, right and upside-down on the Bengals defense, as Idaho State surrendered 145 yards on the ground in the third quarter, 116 of which came from Jenkins.
Jenkins ran the ball 25 times on the afternoon and collected 207 of Cal Poly’s 374 rushing yards, most of which came on the same play, an off-guard, quarterback-keeper.
“They only got good yardage on one play out of the six-to-eight they run,” Peoples said. “We stopped everything but one play. So, we made the adjustment to stop that one play.”
Down 14 late in the third quarter, with its back seemingly against the wall, Idaho State found the end zone in three plays. The drive went 75 yards in a minute-and-four-seconds and was capped off with a wide-open Dean 26-yard touchdown reception.
“We run quick,” said quarterback Tanner Gueller. “Sometimes we make big plays and sometimes it doesn’t happen.”
But the Mustangs responded with another grueling drive that soaked up over five minutes of the clock, only this time, the drive stalled at the Idaho State 12-yard line and the Mustangs were forced to settle for three.
“That sets the tone when you get a red zone stop,” Peoples said. “We are a different animal in the fourth quarter.”
The Idaho State offense then found its way back into the end zone for the second consecutive drive, picking up key third-downs on the way.
Idaho State was 5-of-12 on third downs on the afternoon, but was three-of-four on third downs in the fourth quarter and the only third down Idaho State missed in the final frame was on a quarterback kneel.
“We picked them up when we needed them,” Phenicie said. “I want to be better on third downs, but I will go 0-for-12 if we win. I don’t care. A win is a win.”
Following a Gueller sack, Idaho State was facing a third-and-17 from its own 30 when Dean climbed the ladder and hauled in a 50-50 ball for a 42-yard reception. One play later, Dean caught a screen pass and weaved his way through the defense for a 30-yard score, which pulled Idaho State to within three.
“The thing we talk about in the meeting room is you can’t really overthrow Mikey,” Gueller said.
Idaho State retook the lead on the ensuing drive when James Madison plunged forward for a two-yard touchdown, giving Idaho State its first lead since the first quarter.
Following a Cal Poly punt, the Bengals faced another crucial third down.
This one was a third-and-nine at their own 33 where Cal Poly sent everything except the kitchen sink at Gueller, who delivered a 12-yard strike to wide receiver Hagen Graves as defenders closed in.
Four plays later, the Bengals needed to pick up one more critical third down to preserve the win.
This time they needed one yard and running back James Madison bullied his way through the trenches for two, giving Idaho State the final first down it needed.
“Our atmosphere is awesome,” Dean said. “Especially with a lot more fans coming in. Our team is a brotherhood.”
Idaho State will host Montana next week in Holt Arena.