MOSCOW, Idaho – Idaho’s matchup with Idaho State in Pocatello is unique from at least three perspectives.
It will be the first time the two have played since 2008, and the first time in 23 years the teams have faced each other as Big Sky Conference rivals. And for a change, the Bengals aren’t a doormat.
In 1981, Idaho State tore through the precursor of the Football Championship Subdivision, Division I-AA, with a 12-1 record and beat Eastern Kentucky 34-23 for the national championship.
The Bengals made it back to the playoffs in 1983. They last beat Idaho in 1995, and last won a piece of the Big Sky title in 2002. Since then, the Bengals have spent a lot of time in the wilderness.
Not this year. Idaho State is 3-1, 2-0 in the Big Sky. The lone loss was 45-23 at California, and the Bengals are coming off a 56-24 win over Northern Arizona. In that game, James Madison lit up NAU with 146 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns. Ty Flanagan contributed 86 yards rushing, and quarterback Tanner Gueller added 84.
“We’ve got to stop the run, first of all,” Vandals coach Paul Petrino said. “Probably a huge factor in the game is which team runs the ball better.”
Idaho State runs a lot of inside zone, he said. The antidote is inside pressure and steady gap control on defense.
“We need to make the back have some stuff in front of his face and not make it easy for him,” Petrino said.
Madison resembles Idaho’s Isaiah Saunders, who was a rare bright spot for the Vandals with 102 yards in a loss at UC Davis. and ran for 99 yards in Idaho’s 20-7 win over Portland State.
This year, Gueller has completed 63 of 113 passes for 864 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions. His favorite targets are his brother, Mitch, and Michael Dean, a slot receiver with 10.7-second 100-meter speed, Idaho cornerback Dorian Clark said.
“They’ve got size outside and speed inside,” Clark said. “It’s new for me, this type of receiver corps.”
The Bengals are big up front on defense, Petrino said. They have one of the league’s better linebackers in Kody Graves, who has interceptions in each of Idaho State’s past two games. The Bengals regularly drop eight into coverage.
“They take away easy completions,” Petrino said.
The scheme is made to order for short crossing routes underneath the coverage, Vandals receiver Jeff Cotton said. He and quarterback Mason Petrino worked one of those against PSU for a touchdown that was called back by a penalty, and did it again for another score that counted.
Mason Petrino played the entire game at quarterback against the Vikings after splitting time with Colton Richardson in Idaho’s first three games. Richardson suffered a hand injury against UC Davis and missed several days of practice before the PSU game, but he has had a full week back on the field and is ready to go against Idaho State, Paul Petrino said.
Idaho’s return to the Big Sky has opened to mixed reviews. But at least it’s working out for Idaho State. For the first time in three decades, the Bengals are anticipating a sellout of 11,700-seat Holt Arena against the Vandals. Paul Petrino called the game a battle for the state championship.
Vandals cornerback Clark, a senior, and a veteran of Idaho’s Sun Belt Conference wars, looks forward to an in-state rivalry game in a packed house.
“It’s exciting. You just hear about all the old rivalries, what it used to be like playing at Idaho,” he said. “I think being able to experience that for the first time will be fun.”
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