Mike Kramer’s goal for Xavier Finney’s final season in Pocatello is simple: finish with a flurry.
“What we need from Xavier is we need four weeks of stellar play and we need it to be from the middle of October until the middle of November,” Idaho State’s fifth-year head coach said in May. “We need to not wear him out early in the season so he’s 100 percent capable to finish what he started. In the Bozeman game last year against Montana State, he wrecked his shoulder and he tried to play and he gave up a turnover that was insurmountable for us.”
Finney hurting his shoulder against Montana State proved to be a crucial factor. In what amounted to a playoff game, ISU found itself going blow for blow with the No. 12 Bobcats. Finney had gone to the sidelines on multiple occasions to get his shoulder wrapped and inspected, but he’d continued to play. Late in the third quarter with the score tied 30-30, Finney ripped off a 15-yard run, but was stripped by Cole Moore. Montana State’s Robert Marshall recovered the fumble. MSU would hang on for a 44-39 victory.
The next week, Finney carried the ball one time for eight yards. ISU cruised to a 46-28 win over Weber State to finish the regular season 6-2 in Big Sky Conference play, 8-4 overall. But when the playoff selections came out, ISU was not part of the 24-team field.
“It’s such a motivating factor,” Finney said. “We felt like we got played out with Montana (also 6-2, 8-4) getting into the playoffs instead of us. We are really trying to get in the playoffs this year and win the conference.”
Kramer knows he certainly needs Finney fresh. But Finney’s durability thus far in his career is hard to question. The 5-foot-11, 199-pound senior has carried the ball 535 times in his career, including a Big Sky-best 259 times last season. He carried the ball 244 times in the season’s first 10 weeks. His 535 career carries are 142 short of Josh Barnett’s school record and just 56 away from Hall of Famer Merril Hoge’s career mark.
“He’s tough as hell,” senior center Christian Diehm said. “He takes some shots and he’s not afraid to give them out. He doesn’t avoid a collision. He’s one of those guys, fight or flight, he’s going to fight you. He hits that hole and he’ll take you down.”
Although Finney’s numbers bely the notion, Idaho State’s offense is one of the most pass-heavy in all of college football. The Bengals led the FCS with nearly 350 passing yards per game a season ago. Senior Justin Arias threw for more than 4,000 yards and 38 touchdowns as he finished third in the Walter Payton Award voting. Madison Mangum went over 1,200 yards receiver and K.W. Williams had 922 more. Still, Finney was able to lead the Big Sky in rushing yards (1,495) and was second with 14 rushing touchdowns.
“He’s not the fastest guy or the quickest guy but he’s got great determination and tremendous, tremendous ability to run low to the ground,” Kramer said. “He’s one of the most efficient runners I’ve ever been around. And his vision in peerless.”
Finney has played no small part in Idaho State’s resurgence. The Bengals won twice as many Big Sky games last season (6) as in Kramer’s first three years at the helm. Kramer attributes the resurgence to a collection of factors, starting with solidifying the offensive line and the safeties defensively but also including elite quarterback play and finding a special talent who was once overlooked to carry the mail.
As a senior at El Camino High in Oceanside, California, Finney piled up more than 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns for the second year in a row. He was a first-team All-Avocado league player. Idaho State is the only school that offered him a scholarship. At the time, Kramer was entering his second year coaching a squad that went 6-39 in four seasons under John Zamberlin.
“We recruited him because he was the starting running back at El Camino. Period,” Kramer said. “He also came with the rep as a good person and a hard worker. We knew he would be a hard worker because if you are the starting running back at El Camino, you’re a good player. Literally, it was like a blind draw.
Finney liked that Kramer and Bailey did not hold anything back in admitting the challenges at Idaho State. He loved the idea of moving somewhere unknown and helping to resurrect a program.
“Idaho State was the most consistent and they were the only ones who really offered me a full ride scholarship,” Finney said. “You have to go where the scholarship is. I saw a great opportunity when Coach Kramer and Coach Bailey visited my house. They told me we were going to have a great team, change the program around. I believed in what they were saying and we’ve done it.”
“To go from empty orange seats the last few years to having the dome (Holt Arena) packed is awesome. To have that support from your community and your university and to help bring those people back is amazing.”
Finney needs 757 yards to break Barnett’s program record set in 2007. He needs 13 touchdowns to surpass Isaac Mitchell’s 34 scored between 2000 and 2003. He’s looking to capitalize on last season’s first-team All-Big Sky campaign.
“The work I’ve put in in the off-season with the training room and the weight room will benefit me,” Finney said. “I know I’ll have another great season and a durable year. We feel like we are at the top of the league. We finished last season close to the top. We didn’t have the outcome we wanted but we will get it.”
Kramer has been a master rebuilder during his many years in the Big Sky. By Year 4 at Eastern Washington, Kramer led the 1997 Eagles to the semifinals of the Division I-AA playoffs. By Year 4 in Bozeman, Kramer had led the Montana State Bobcats to back-to-back Big Sky banners. Year 4 in Pocatello brought Idaho State to the brink. If Kramer can find a way to keep Finney healthy for a stretch run, the Bengals could take the next step toward a Big Sky ring.
“We haven’t done anything until we hang two banners back to back,” Kramer said. “You can’t just win one title. You have to win two. Until you win two titles, you are just lucky. Idaho State has only hung two or three banners in 52 years and it’s always been followed by a catastrophe, a crash. I don’t want to win the title and have it be an aberration. For us, success is never going to be measured until we win a championship. Two of them. Until then, we are building.”
Photos courtesy of Idaho State Athletics. All Rights Reserved.