Let’s call this the Bounceback Bowl. Sorry, no sponsor, unless Rubbermaid offers to step up at the last second.
Idaho, dumped by Idaho State last week, and Montana State, thumped by Northern Arizona seven days ago, meet this morning at 11:05 PDT at Reno H. Sales Stadium to determine who might rebound toward a successful football season.
And who might spiral toward Big Sky Conference disappointment.
“It really is (a test of Idaho’s character),” Vandals’ coach Chris Tormey said. “We’re playing a good team, even though they got beat bad last week. They sort of bellyflopped like we did.”
Both teams are 0-1 in the Big Sky. Neither can afford an 0-2 start and maintain legitimate title and/or playoff hopes.
The Bobcats finished 3-8 last year and winless in the conference. But MSU coach Cliff Hysell said the senior leadership is better this season and he believes the team can recover from the 37-0 loss to NAU.
“Our attitude is so much better,” Hysell said.
Idaho’s attitude will be checked as well. Jeff Mills, Idaho’s secondary coach and a former Bobcats assistant under Hysell, believes both teams will respond to last week’s setbacks.
“My first couple years there, they (MSU) reacted real well after losses and it’s the same thing this year,” Mills said. “We’re just getting back to fundamentals and working harder; that’s all you can do. And we do have real good leadership here.”
In a win earlier this season, the Bobcats attempted only 11 passes. Mills knows Hysell loves to use the run, but Idaho’s secondary showed vulnerability last week.
“People are going to throw the ball at us, and we’ve got to be better to defend the pass,” Mills said. “In this conference, we’re going to get challenged no matter what, especially when people see we didn’t do so well.”
UI’s Arnold Gunn returns from injury to start at cornerback and Antoine Chambers takes over a starting safety spot from Tommy James, though James will probably play.
That unit encounters perhaps the Sky’s finest receiving duo. MSU All-America candidate Eric Hopkins has at least one reception in 22 straight games. He was plagued by drops and injury earlier this season, but Hysell pronounced Hopkins “as healthy as he’s been all season.”
In addition, speedster Kenyatte Morgan is averaging 24 yards per catch and is dangerous in punt/kick returns, as is Hopkins.
MSU quarterback Jeff Tuss, a 25-year-old who sprinkled in a minor-league baseball career before leaving Fresno State last year as a seldom-used reserve, has been efficient, but not spectacular.
“A lot of people expected way too much from him because of Fresno State’s (past) success at quarterback,” Hysell said. “He’s doing what we asked of him.”
Idaho, which has had difficulty in previous years against MSU’s defense, will start sophomore Brian Brennan at quarterback. “If he plays the way he’s capable of playing, we’ll stay with him,” Tormey said.
Should Brennan falter, expect to see backup Eric Hisaw.
There is added pressure on Idaho’s offense due to the loss of running back Joel Thomas, out with a broken foot. Lavoni Kidd steps into the starting job.
“We have to have some guys step up and make up for Joel, and not just the running backs,” Tormey said.
Thomas is expected to have surgery on his left foot Tuesday. A screw will be inserted to reattach a broken piece of bone. He’ll probably be out 3-4 weeks from Tuesday, Tormey said… MSU’s defense is led by its talented ends, Jason Hicks, Devlan Geddes and Neal Smith. Cornerback Omar Turner has four interceptions… MSU has lost 10 straight Sky games.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Vandals vs. Montana State
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.