During the off-season, Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer was hesitant to buy the hype surrounding his Bengals.
“We are about 95 percent about as solid as anybody in this conference except at quarterback and that’s the key position,” Kramer, the 2014 Big Sky Coach of the Year, said in an interview in May. “That’s a huge question mark that will preclude us ever, ever being thought of as an elite team. If we aren’t elite at quarterback, we are not elite as a team.”
The premonition has proven true this season as Idaho State has struggled mightily since the graduation of 2014 Walter Payton Award finalist Justin Arias. The Bengals enter Saturday’s matchup with Montana with a 2-6 record that includes just one win — a 37-31 upset of then-No. 23 North Dakota in Grand Forks — over a Division I opponent.
Last season, Idaho State led the FCS in total offense and averaged almost 40 points per game as Arias threw for more than 4,000 yards and 38 touchdowns. ISU posted an 8-4 record, its best in more than a decade and just missed the FCS playoffs. This season, with junior college transfer Michael Sanders at the helm before giving way to redshirt freshman Tanner Gueller two weeks ago, the Bengals have sputtered. ISU is averaging almost 170 less yards (down to 407 per game) and almost half as many points (down to 22.6 points per game.
Sanders threw for 240 yards per game and tossed 17 touchdowns against 10 interceptions before an injury cost him his starting spot. In a 38-13 loss at Sacramento State, Gueller threw three third quarter interceptions and Kramer benched him in favor of sophomore wide receiver Trae Pilster.
“We are just not good enough at quarterback. We hold the ball and we held the ball last week and the result is sacks, fumbles and interceptions,” Kramer said leading up to the Sac State game. “And this was a game where Michael came off of having such a great game against North Dakota. He held the ball last week and it hurt the team really bad. He will not throw the ball fast enough to protect himself.”
“The main thing about quarterback is it has nothing to do with arm strength or size. It’s how your brain works. It’s how you can perceive the play before the play begins. Right now, we are staggering in that concept.”
The Idaho State defense has also been ravaged by an injury plague to key players. Linebacker Mario Jenkins, the 2014 Big Sky Freshman of the Year, lost his season to a knee injury during fall camp. Senior safety Taison Manu, a third-team All-Big Sky selection last fall, suffered a similar season-ending injury before the season started. Senior safety Cody Sorensen has also been slowed by injuries but has not missed a start.
Idaho State has fizzled since the outset of its season. In a 55-0 win over Division II Black Hills State, Sanders threw five touchdowns in the first half. Since then, Idaho State hasn’t seen much production on either side of the ball.
In Week 2, No. 24 Portland State came into Holt Arena and stomped the Bengals. The 34-14 Vikings win began a four-game losing streak that included historic beat downs at the hands of FBS Boise State (52-0) and UNLV (80-8). UNLV rushed for 517 yards and the next week, Cal Poly was a yard shy of 500 in a 56-28 win.
The Bengals appeared to have a break through in Grand Forks. Trailing 31-15 late in the third quarter, Sanders caught fire in the passing game, throwing three touchdowns over the final 17 minutes as ISU rallied for a 37-31 win.
The following week, ISU trailed Eastern Washington 31-21 at halftime only to see Sanders threw three second half interceptions in a 45-28 loss. Against Sac State, the Bengals hit rock bottom as Sac true freshman quarterback Nate Ketteringham threw for 286 yards and four touchdowns in his second career start.
“They’ve been God-awful on offense and they found a way to play better tonight,” Kramer said following the loss. “A high school team could have played defense as well as us tonight.”
Idaho State is fresh off a bye as Montana comes to Pocatello for the first time since 2011. The 4-4 Griz are coming off a 35-16 loss at Portland State. Montana needs to win its remaining three games to stay alive in the FCS playoff race.
Location: Pocatello, Idaho
Founded: 1901. ISU is a Carnegie-classified doctoral research high and teaching institution that attracts students from around the world.
Enrollment: The university has 14,489 and an endowment of $40.3 million.
Stadium: Holt Arena. The 42-year-old arena holds 12,000. The school replaced its notorious AstroTurf with field turf before the 2011 season. The Bengals averaged 6,720 fans in five home games last fall. ISU is averaging 7,348 fans in three home games this season
THE TEAM (1-4 in the Big Sky, 2-6 overall)
The Coach: Mike Kramer, fifth season at Idaho State. Last season, Kramer became one of a handful of coaches in college football history to win league Coach of the Year honors at a third school. The four-time Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year is 16-38 at ISU and 93-113 in his career. He’s 9-28 in the Big Sky at Idaho State and 63-72 in Big Sky play overall.
“Three is my limit,” Kramer said following the loss.
This season, Gueller has played in seven games. He has completed 57 percent of his 105 passes for 529 yards, two touchdowns and five interceptions.
Finney was a workhorse, carrying the ball a Big Sky-best 259 times for 1,495 yards (5.8 yards per carry) and he scored 14 touchdowns. But he dislocated his shoulder against MSU and struggled the final two weeks of the season.
This season, with the absence of a consistent decision maker at quarterback, Finney has not been as productive. He is averaging 4.0 yards per carry on 147 carries and he’s rushed for 586 yards. He has four touchdowns.
Madison Mangum, wide receiver, 6-2, 212, senior — Mangum transformed himself physical between 2013 and 2014 as much as any player in the league. His emergence was unexpected both for opponents and those on the Bengals.
“He surprised me and he surprised everyone,” Kramer said in the off-season. “The problem I have with Madison outside the tremendous accolades he’s had up until now, he finished the Eastern Washington game on the sideline and on the last two plays against Montana State, he was on the sideline. He needs to have some big game ability not just big stat ability.”
Last season, Mangum caught 83 passes for 1,234 yards and 10 touchdowns. This season, he has been a bright spot. The former BYU transfer has caught 54 passes for 717 yards and eight touchdowns.
Tyler Kuder, defensive line, 6-3, 305, senior — The hulking defensive tackle is one of the most physically imposing defensive players in the league. Without Manu and Jenkins, Kuder has been relied on even more heavily.
“I think Tyler is as good as any defensive lineman in this conference,” Kramer said in the off-season. “He’s got height, weight, size and speed.”
Last season, Kuder earned second-team All-Big Sky honors by notching 56 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. He also blocked a kick. Thus far this season, he’s been even better. He enters the Montana game with 60 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks.
Hayden Stout, linebacker, 6-2, 230, junior — The plan was to move Jenkins to the middle position left vacant by All-Big Sky senior Mitch Beckstead’s graduation. Instead, it’s Stout that has moved from the outside to the middle for the Bengals.
Last season, Stout had 50 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss as he started as 12 games next to Jenkins and Beckstead. This season, he’s seen more action come his way. He leads ISU with 76 total tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.
Kurt Karstetter, linebacker, 6-2, 218, senior — Karstetter has seen an elevated role because of the slew of injuries and has performed well for an otherwise underwhelming defense. ISU is giving up 300 rushing yards per game to Division I opponents and 42.2 points per game overall.
In eight starts, Karstetter has 33 tackles, seven tackles for loss, three sacks and one of ISU’s three interceptions.
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