First Look

FIRST LOOK: Bengals, Bobcats renew rivalry in Bozeman on Saturday

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BOZEMAN, Montana — A rivalry as old as the Big Sky Conference will be renewed on Saturday.

Montana State and Idaho State square off for the 82nd time, including the 55th time since each served as charter members of a league founded in 1963.

The last time the two teams clashed at Holt Arena in Pocatello in 2018, the Bengals pushed the Bobcats to the outskirts of the playoff picture with a 24-17 victory. Montana State did not lose again, ending the regular season with three straight victories including an unforgettable comeback to beat rival Montana in Missoula and punch MSU’s first ticket to the playoffs under former head coach Jeff Choate.

Montana State and Idaho State did not play in 2019, so Saturday’s matchup in Bozeman will mark the first clash between the two rivals since that October afternoon in Pocatello. And this week marks new MSU head coach Brent Vigen’s first game against the Bengals, the latest debut in a year full of them.

Yet Vigen, who spent most of his football life in Fargo, North Dakota, as either a player or coach at North Dakota State, has a full understanding of what a historic, geography-enhanced matchup his Bobcats face on Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.

“I think you look at a map and it’s easy to see this is a this is a big game,” Vigen said. “Outside of the University of Montana, they (Idaho State) are the closest rivals and I know we’ve played for a long time as charter members.

“We recruit and they recruit a lot of the same kids. I think all that comes into play and anytime we have a conference foe coming into our stadium, it doesn’t matter who it is, but I know the ones that are a little closer spark a little more interest.”

Montana State has played Idaho State more than any other schools other than Idaho and Montana. Saturday will mark the 83rd contest between the two premier academic institutions. Most years, the only two “Carnegie high research institutions” in the Big Sky Conference are MSU and ISU.

The Bobcats also have more wins (48) against the Bengals than any other opponent in its football history. MSU is 48-31-3 all-time against Idaho State.

Saturday’s matchup features a Bobcat team ranked No. 8 in the nation and on a six-game winning streak punctuated by last Friday’s 13-7 win over No. 18 Weber State, facing an Idaho State team that has won one game this season.

Montana State’s latest win over the four-time defending league champions also marked MSU’s first win in Ogden since 2013. Two weeks ago, Idaho State handed No. 8 UC Davis its first loss, 27-14, in Pocatello, Idaho. The Aggies’ lone loss equaled Idaho State’s only victory.

“They’ve had their ups and downs this year but I recognize those ups. They have the win over Davis and the close loss to Sacramento State (23-21) so more than anything,” Vigen said, “our guys have to be ready to go.”

QUICK HITS

Location: Pocatello, Idaho

Nickname: Bengals

Founded: 1901. ISU is a Carnegie-classified doctoral research teaching institution that attracts students from around the world.

Enrollment: The university has 12,425 and an endowment of $53 million.

Stadium: Holt Arena. The 45-year-old arena holds 12,000. The school replaced its notorious AstroTurf with field turf before the 2011 season. The Bengals are averaging 5,290 fans per game in three home contests this season.

THE COACH

Rob Phenicie, fifth year at Idaho State — Phenicie took over when Mike Kramer was forced into retirement during spring football in 2017. But he is no stranger to the Big Sky.

Rob Phenicie

Phenicie served as Cal State Northridge’s offensive coordinator in the late 1990s before the school dropped football in 2001. After coaching for former Montana head coach Joe Glenn at Wyoming for three years, Phenicie joined Bobby Hauck’s staff at Montana in 2003. He helped the Griz to seven straight Big Sky titles before moving with Hauck to UNLV in 2010.

When Hauck resigned following the 2014 season, Phenicie joined Kramer’s staff as the wide receivers coach, a role he served for two years.

For less than a week, Phenicie was set to join Mark Farley’s staff at Northern Iowa in the spring of 2017. Then Kramer stepped down and Phenicie got his first shot as a head coach.

He led the Bengals to a 4-7 record that included a win over FBS Nevada and two Big Sky wins in 2017. The following season, Idaho State won five league games and went 6-5 overall. Idaho State has won six games since then, including a 2-4 mark in the recent spring season and a 1-5 mark so far this year.

Phenicie is 16-30 as a head coach including 12-22 in league play.

THE TEAM (1-3 in league play, 1-5 overall)

THE OFFENSE – PLAYERS TO WATCH

Hunter Hays, quarterback, 6-3, 195, freshman

Hunter Hays

Vigen spent the last seven seasons as the offensive coordinator for head coach Craig Bohl at Wyoming. Hays is a true freshman from Cody, Wyoming.

Saturday’s matchup was also supposed to be a reunion for Idaho State quarterback Tyler Vander Waal and Vigen, who recruited Vander Waal at Wyoming before the strong-armed quarterback transferred to ISU.

Vander Waal was one of the breakout players of the Big Sky spring season. But he has been hurt for the last few weeks.

“Hays has played the last several games,” Vigen said. “The guy I coached, Tyler Vander Waal, was their guy coming in. It appears that Tyler will continue to be out, but we will have to be ready for his return.

“Hays, I think, has played pretty well for a young guy, out of Cody, Wyoming. He’s done all right. They have instilled some confidence in him. And you can see he’s playing beyond his experience right now.”

Hays started in a 48-17 loss at Northern Arizona, in the 27-17 win over UC Davis and in last week’s 31-10 loss at Portland State.

He went 20-of-40 for 208 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions in the loss in Flagstaff. He was 16-of-30 for 281 yards, two touchdowns and no picks in the UC Davis win in Poky. And last week, the ISU quarterback was 15-of-26 for 140 yards, a TD and two INTs.

Tanner Conner, wide receiver, 6-3, 235, senior

Tanner Conner

Coming out of Kentridge High in Kent outside of Seattle, Washington, Conner was one of the elite track athletes in the country. He was the Washington 4A state champion in the 300-meter hurdles, running one of the top 30 fastest times in the country in the grueling race.

The ripped, explosive senior has continued showing that speed while transforming into one of the league’s best receivers.

Conner led Idaho State with 47 receptions for 792 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019, his breakout season after playing sparingly and catching 13 total passes in 2017 and 2018.

In the spring, Conner earned his first All-Big Sky Conference nod. He caught 34 passes for 685 yards and three touchdowns during the six-game slate. He rolled up a career-high 208 yards in a 24-22 win over Idaho, one of two spring wins for the Bengals.

This season, Conner continues to be the leading pass catcher in an offense designed by former standout Montana wide receiver Mike Ferriter, who’s now the Bengals’ offensive coordinator. Conner has team-highs of 19 catches for 363 yards (19.1 yards per catch) and three of ISU’s seven receiving touchdowns.

Yet he has expressed frustration with a unit that is scoring just 16.5 points per game during ISU’s 1-5 start.

“We’ve had the same system since I’ve been here,” Conner said in a press conference after ISU’s 0-4 start, as reported by Jordan Kaye of the Idaho State Journal. “Obviously, you’ve seen it executed in the past, but the team is a lot different now. I would be open to change. We have different types of personnel. We have different types of players now.”

Conner continued:

“I think change can always be a good thing for a team, especially at a point like now where we’re 0-4 and we’re trying to do the same thing that’s not necessarily working out for us. Maybe there are opportunities to make changes so that we can at least have a chance of improving our offense. If we continue down this path, it’s not going to be good for anybody. It’s not good for our mental health either.”

Malakai Rango, running back, 5-10, 185, sophomore

When asked about all the elite running backs in the Big Sky Conference, Phenicie rattled off Weber State All-American Josh Davis, Montana State bucking horse Isaiah Ifanse, UC Davis stud Ulonzo Gilliam and former Sac State running back Elijah Dotson by name.

He then said, “But I’d take our guy over any of them.”

Rango is that guy. And Phenicie had reason for his praise after the San Mateo, California, native rushed for 351 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 70.2 yards per game during the spring season. He had a season-best 89 yards against UC Davis.

In 2019, Rango had 508 yards on just 96 carries, scoring four total touchdowns. His breakout game came when he rushed for 142 yards and a TD against BYU.

This season, Rango has battled injuries but is still Idaho State’s leading rusher. He has rushed for 199 yards on 47 carries (4.2 yards per carry) and has one of the Bengals’ four rushing touchdowns. He is also ISU’s punt returner.

THE DEFENSE – PLAYERS TO WATCH

Oshea Trujillo, linebacker, 5-11, 210 pounds, senior

Montana State senior Troy Andersen gets a slew of headlines for his do-everything ways. Andersen has won all-conference recognition at running back, multiple linebacker positions and even at quarterback.

Oshea Trujillo

Trujillo has not been that diverse (who has?) but he has played both ways during his ISU career. He carried the ball 10 times for 66 yards during the spring while also ranking second on the team with 34 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss on the way to earning second-team All-Big Sky honors at outside linebacker.

Since coming to Idaho State in 2016, the Seattle native has been a steady contributor for the Bengals. He had 34 tackles and four tackles for loss in 2017 followed up by 47 tackles and a sack in 2018. In 2019, he had 64 tackles, 2.5 sacks and two interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown against North Dakota.

Jayden Dawson, defensive back, 5-10, 185, junior

Dawson has been one of the bright spots on a defensive unit that’s giving up 34 points and 466 yards of total offense per outing.

Dawson is third on the Bengals with 35 total tackles. He has two tackles for loss, an interception, and nine pass breakups this season.

Dawson was the best DB on the team during the spring as well, breaking up four passes and notching 30 tackles on the way to first-team All-Big Sky honors.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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