Last week was a money game for the Idaho State football team and was essentially a full-speed scrimmage for Utah State, who paid Idaho State $280,000 for an easy win.
From Idaho State’s perspective, these games are not about winning, they are about collecting a paycheck to better the athletic department for the future and learn a thing or two about where the team’s strengths and weaknesses are. This week’s game against Nevada is the same deal.
Truth is, we probably won’t know how good this football team is until it take the field against Northern Colorado because that is the first team Idaho State will play where the game won’t be decided by halftime.
That being said, I thought Idaho State played pretty well against Utah State considering the fact that the Aggies are traditionally a pretty good Mountain West program. Although the score didn’t indicate it, there were a lot of positives that came out of the lopsided score. Mainly, there were three things that stood out to me that show this team might be on the upswing.
The Team Played All Four Quarters
This was not the case in previous money games. Go back and look at the UNLV game a few years ago. The final was 80-8 and the Rebels led 35-0 at the end of the first quarter and the team folded soon after.
The Rebels set a school record for points in a game, and it was the most points scored by a Mountain West team since 1999. UNLV totaled over 500 rushing yards and four running backs had over 75 yards rushing.
That same year, the Bengals gave up over 500 rushing yards to Big Sky competition in Cal Poly in another game where it seemed like the team packed it in early.
Heck, go back and look at the Northern Arizona game last year. That was a winnable game in my mind, and it seemed like as soon as one thing went wrong, the floodgates opened and the, “oh, boy, here we go again,” mentality set in. Coming into the season last year, I had that game as a toss-up, but the Bengals lost 52-7.
That didn’t happen against Utah State.
Despite what some people said on social media, I thought the team won the final quarter-and-a-half and even Utah State head coach, Matt Wells, commented that his second stringers had a lot of growing up to do. I credit a lot of that to the way Idaho State finished the game. Like I said, they didn’t finish games last year.
Look at it this way, after Utah State quarterback, Kent Myers exited the game, the Aggies only outscored the Bengals 7-6.
Ty Flanagan Could Have a Monster Year
Idaho State running back Ty Flanagan had a great game against Utah State.
The physical running back carried the ball 25 times for 106 yards with a touchdown and caught four passes out of the backfield for an additional 22 yards.
Flanagan averaged 4.2 yards per carry against a traditionally stout front-seven Mountain West team.
I credit a lot of that to the offensive line, which for the exception of one play, did a great job of keeping quarterback Tanner Gueller upright. There was one instance where Gueller took a shot to his blind-side, but this is a Utah State team that collected three sacks against Wisconsin in its first game of the season.
This was an area that coming into the game worried me a bit, but Gueller was only sacked twice against Utah State after being popped five times against Western Oregon.
If the offensive line can stay healthy and play like it did against Utah State for the remainder of the year, it could mean big things for Flanagan as well, who looked like he belonged on a Mountain West field.
I love the way Flanagan runs and his physicality could be big for short-down situations and on the goal line. He ran with the big dogs last week and if Flanagan can keep his mojo up against Big Sky schools, Idaho State will have a respectable running game in the Big Sky, which takes a lot of pressure off the rest of the offense.
However many times offensive coordinator Matt Troxel decides to give Flanagan the ball, my personal opinion is that it still isn’t enough.
Special Teams is Actually Kinda Good This Year
Under former head coach Mike Kramer, special teams was… to put it nicely, awful.
Idaho State made it on ESPN’s not top-ten in a punting blunder in a 2015 game against Boise State. The Bengals had a chance to beat Montana that same year but the team’s 2015 field goal adventures reached its pinnacle when the ball was snapped over Gueller’s head and Montana returned the botched snap for a game-winning touchdown.
Prior to head coach Rob Phenicie, extra points and short field goals were routinely missed, the rugby style punts rarely changed the field position and Idaho State was calling fair catches when the closest coverage guy was 20 yards away.
Phenicie has made special teams a point of emphasis this year and it is starting to show.
Idaho State did botch a snap on an extra point, but that has really been the only miscue all season on special teams.
Punter Sean Cheney pinned the Aggies inside their own 20 four times off of nine punts. Cheney covered 384 yards and his long was 52, good for an average of 42.7 yards per punt.
Against Western Oregon, Cheney had two punts of over 50 yards and pinned the Wolves inside the 20 twice for an average of 46.7 yards per punt.
Field goals are no longer the adventures they used to be. I now trust that Idaho State will make anything under about 35 yards. In 2015, I didn’t trust that the Bengals would make the point after. That is huge because the dead zone, or the area where it is too close to punt but too far away for a field goal, has shrunk by about 30 yards.
Oh, and we are also heading into week three and the Bengals haven’t given up a kick or a punt return yet.
Special teams is a third of the game, and the improvement that Phenicie has made in his short amount of time as head coach is worth noting.