MISSOULA, Montana — The Montana Grizzlies made a statement that resonated around the FCS on Saturday with a 45-20 beat down of the No. 4 UC Davis Aggies at Aggie Stadium.
“We are happy to be 1-0 in the Big Sky right now and we are fired up for homecoming this week in Missoula with Idaho State coming to town,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said. “That’s exactly how we look at it. We are 1-0 in the Big Sky.”
Hauck has long preached the importance of treating every game with the same intensity in preparation with a prioritization on execution. As Hauck consistently reminds the media, “big” wins don’t matter if you lose the games you are supposed to win. Or lose any games at all.
Montana must focus on avoiding a letdown against an upstart Idaho State team coached by a Hauck protégé this Saturday on a day Montana celebrates homecoming. Rob Phenicie, an assistant on Hauck’s staff at Montana and UNLV for a total of 12 seasons, is in his third season as the head coach at ISU. He led the Bengals to their first winning record since 2014 last season.
This year’s ISU team is coming off a 51-24 win over Portland State in which quarterback Matt Struck threw for 343 yards and six touchdowns on just 16 completions. Ty Flanagan rushed for 119 yards on 21 carries. Senior wide receivers Mitch Gueller and Mikey Dean each caught 45-yard touchdowns as the Bengals’ run-pass option operated like a well-oiled machine.
“They present a big challenge,” Hauck said. “They have their quarterback back (Struck went down early in ISU’s 31-0 loss at No. 11 Utah). They have played really well with him in the game. They absolutely killed Portland State last week. I think they were up 41-7 at half (41-10). They won going away.”
Under the direction of second-year offensive coordinator Mike Ferriter, a Montana alum, the Bengals have scored at least 37 points eight times in 15 games. ISU is averaging 34 points per game against FCS opponents.
“I know they feel real strongly about their skill players, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, which I agree with,” Hauck said. “You look at the defensive side (coordinated by former Montana State star Roger Cooper, the 2004 Big Sky Defensive MVP) of the ball and they are only giving up 20 points per game. This is a dangerous, dangerous opponent and they have our attention early on this week.”
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 12,805 and an endowment of $53 million.
Stadium: Holt Arena. The 49-year-old arena holds 12,000. The school replaced its notorious AstroTurf with field turf before the 2011 season. The Bengals are averaging 5,584 fans per game in two home games this season.
Rob Phenicie, third 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.
Phenicie served as Cal State Northridge’s offensive coordinator in the late 1990s before 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 in Las Vegas, Phenicie joined Kramer’s staff as the wide receivers coach, a role he served for two years.
“Rob and those guys do a really good job,” Hauck said. “Their strength coach is someone we are familiar with. They are a fit looking, good looking group. Dan Ryan does a great job in their weight room. They know how we do business and we probably don’t have quite as good an idea of how they do it. We haven’t been immersed in it. We will have to change a few things to counteract that.”
Dan Ryan was Hauck’s strength coach at UNLV from 2010 until 2015. Idaho State offensive coordinator Mike Ferriter was a three-year starter at wide receiver for Hauck at Montana from 2004 and 2008. He was a captain as a senior. That year, he became the 11th Griz to reach 2,000 yards receiver in his career. He caught 148 passes for 2,116 yards and 15 touchdowns in his career.
ISU cornerbacks coach J.B. Hall served a similar position for three seasons on Bob Stitt’s staff between 2015 and 2018.
“The programs know each other really well,” Hauck said. “The staffs know each other really, really well. Numerous of their guys are guys who have worked here and or are alums of our place. With that crossover, we will have to change some things and try to keep them knowing ahead of time what we are doing on any given play.”
For less than a week in the spring of 2017, Phenicie was set to join Mark Farley’s staff at Northern Iowa. Then Kramer stepped down and Phenicie got his first shot as a head coach.
He led the Bengals to a 5-6 record that included a win over FBS Nevada and two Big Sky wins. Former ISU athletic director Jeff Tingey, who was fired on August 28, gave Phenicie a three-year contract extension in October of 2017. Last season, ISU posted a 6-5 record that included five Big Sky wins.
ISU enters its matchup with Montana fresh off a 51-24 thrashing of Portland State in Pocatello. The Bengals led 41-10 at halftime and moved to 1-0 in Big Sky play, 2-2 overall with the victory.
“They are extremely well coached,” Hauck said. “Those guys have done an amazing job there. Historically, it’s been a place where it’s been up and down and these guys have done a nice job coaching there. They play hard, they are sound, their scheme is excellent. They are a handful to prepare for.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH – The offense
Mitch Gueller, wide receiver, 6-3, 224, senior — Idaho State brought in Struck to replace Tanner Gueller, a four-year starter under center who ended his career with 9,061 yards passing and threw 74 touchdowns.
Tanner exhausted his eligibility before Mitch even though Mitch is nearly three years older. As a senior of W.F. West High in Chehalis, Washington, in 2012, Mitch was a second-round pick in the Major League Baseball draft by the Philadelphia Phillies.
When his baseball career wrapped in early 2016, the former all-state football player decided to try his hand playing wide receiver catching passes from his brother. That first fall, Gueller showed flashes of his big-play ability. He caught a 57-yard touchdown against Northern Arizona, caught 10 passes for 187 yards against Weber State and caught five passes for 100 yards against Montana. He finished with 36 catches for 509 yards and three touchdowns.
The following season, he again caught 36 passes but this time for 871 yards and eight touchdowns. He went over 100 yards four times, including catching nine passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns against Montana. He earned first-team All-Big Sky honors.
Last season, the athletic, acrobatic, explosive playmaker caught 62 passes for 1,259 yards and nine touchdowns to earn first-team All-Big Sky and Hero Sports All-American honors.
Gueller has battled injuries early during his final season with the Bengals. Yet he is still averaging 18.8 yards per catch on his nine receptions. He’s caught two touchdowns, including a 45-yard last week against Portland State.
For his career, Gueller has caught 134 passes for a jaw-dropping 2,639 yards and 20 touchdowns. He is averaging 19.7 yards per catch in his college career.
“Idaho State really believes their offensive skill players to be the best in the league, Maybe they are right. They are awfully good,” Hauck said. “(Struck) throws it up to them, he’s accurate and those receivers make plays.”
Mikey Dean, wide receiver, 5-6, 151, senior — Dean is one of, if not THE, shortest player in the Big Sky. He is also one of, if not THE fastest player in the entire conference. During the 2019 indoor track season, Dean won the 60-meter dash at four different meets. He took second at the indoor championships, running a time of 6.74 seconds. He set an Idaho State record with his silver medal finish in the event.
At Chaffey High in Upland, California, Dean was a phenom on the track. He was the league MVP in track and field as a sophomore after winning state titles in the 100 meters, 200 meters, pole vault and in the 4×100 relay. As a senior, he again was an MVP, winning the 100 meters in a blazing time of 10.71 seconds. He long jumped 23 feet, six inches and had the eight-best pole vault in the country with a jump of 15 feet, three inches.
And even with all those accolades, Dean still might’ve been a more impressive high school football player. Dean rushed for 2,555 yards and 37 touchdowns as a senior, setting the Inland Valley regular season rushing record in the process. He led the state of California in rushing yards, a total that ranked third nationally.
He’s parlayed all that potential into one of the most impressive careers for a diminutive player in the history of the Big Sky. The first time he ever played in a game, he ripped off a 91-yard touchdown run against Sac State. He finished that afternoon with 154 yards and two touchdowns on just four rushes.
As a sophomore in 2017, he hauled in 52 catches for 754 yards and eight touchdowns. He caught five passes for 133 yards in ISU’s upset win at FBS Nevada.
Last season, Dean earned second-team all-conference honors by catching 49 passes for 863 yards and 10 touchdowns. He caught four touchdown passes in a 62-28 demolition of Idaho. He set a career high with 210 yards on just six catches in a narrow 48-41 loss at FBS Liberty.
Dean has caught 20 passes for 300 yards and three touchdowns thus far this season. He caught five for 78 yards, including touchdowns of 45 and 15 yards last week against Portland State.
“Against Portland State, once they got it rolling, it was unreal,” Hauck said. “You can go back to their game against Idaho last year or the first three quarters of their game against Davis, they just lit people up. It’s eye-opening.”
Matt Struck, quarterback, 6-3, 209, junior — During Mike Kramer’s first two seasons as the head coach, former junior college transfer Kevin Yost attempted more than 1,000 passes, averaging nearly 47 attempts per game in 2011 and 2012.
Justin Arias joined the Bengals in 2013, breaking Yost’s previous two program single-season highs for attempts in a season, throwing 574 passes after transferring from the College of the Canyons. The following season, Arias threw for 4,076 yards and 38 touchdowns, leading ISU to an 8-4 record and finishing third in the Walter Payton Award voting.
In other words, Bengal quarterbacks have been chucking it around Holt Arena and the Rocky Mountain West for most of this decade. Tanner Gueller’s 74 touchdown passes broke Arias’ school record of 64.
Struck hopes to become the next in the line of prolific gunslingers. After graduating from Crater High in Central Point, Oregon, he spent two years at Riverside Community College but did not play. The junior college also featured Vic Viramontes, the former California Prep Player of the Year who originally committed to Jim Harbaugh at Michigan before playing his freshman season at Minnesota. Riverside’s roster also featured Travis Jonsen, a former four-star recruit who started his career at Oregon and is now a senior captain at Montana State.
Struck transferred to ISU and redshirted last season. In his debut against Western Colorado, he threw for 402 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-13 win. Late in the first quarter of a 31-0 loss to Utah, Struck was on the wrong side of what ended up a targeting penalty in the second quarter. He did not return to the game. Gunnar Amos played the rest of the game and every snap in a 13-6 loss at No. 9 Northern Iowa.
“He (Struck) is good at a lot of things,” Hauck said. “You look at their production when he went out in the Utah game and didn’t play against Northern Iowa, it was a completely different offensive team in terms of their production. With him being back in the mix and healthy, they are a whole different beast.”
Struck broke out last week and Amos left the program abruptly for personal reasons, according to ISU athletics.
PLAYERS TO WATCH – The defense
Kody Graves, linebacker, 6-1, 215, senior — When healthy, the unassuming yet aggressive linebacker has been one of the Big Sky’s most productive players.
After playing as a true freshman, Graves suffered a serious knee injury that cost him the 2016 season.
In 2017, he notched a sack against Nevada in an ISU upset win on the way to totaling 58 tackles, eight tackles for loss and forcing two fumbles.
Last season, he rolled up 83 tackles and earned third-team All-Big Sky honors. He had two interceptions and a sack.
This season, he leads ISU with 35 tackles and his two tackles for loss are second on the Bengals.
Christian McFarland, safety, 6-0, 194, senior — McFarland and Adkin Aguierre make up one of the more experienced safety pairs in the league. McFarland, a former transfer from Sacramento City College, intercepted a Davis Alexander pass and raced 64 yards for a touchdown. That score gave ISU a 20-0 lead less than 11 minutes into the game.
McFarland finished fourth on the team last season with 75 tackles. He had one interception and six pass breakups his first season with the Bengals. This season, he is fourth on the team with 24 tackles, including 13 solo tackles and a tackle for loss.
Jay Irvine, cornerback, 6-foot-1, 201, junior — In three seasons at Oregon State (including a redshirt year), Irvine played in 14 games and started four. He guarded some of the Pac 12’s best wide receivers.
He’ll face that caliber of player against Montana on Saturday. The Griz feature a collection of the most athletic and most formidable wide receivers in the Big Sky. Senoir quarterback Dalton Sneed is the two-time reigning Big SKy Offensive Player of the Week. He’s thrown nine touchdowns in the last two weeks. Samuel Akem, Samori Toure and Jerry Louie-McGee have combined to catch 86 passes for 1,063 yards and seven of Sneed’s 13 touchdowns.
Irvine will likely draw the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Akem, one of the biggest physical freaks in the league.