Big Sky Conference

‘They are more committed to it than anyone in the league’ — RPO elements of ISU offense producing elite results


The run-pass option has taken football by storm.

Whether it’s Aaron Rodgers pulling the ball and throwing a rope to a streaking Davante Adams for the Green Bay Packers or Carson Wentz using his wizardly ball skills to confuse defenders or Nick Foles throwing bombs set up by play fakes in the Super Bowl for the Philadelphia Eagles, the building trend has had a huge influence all the way to the highest level of the game.

At the college level, the same can be said. Eastern Washington’s revitalized run game has helped EWU add RPO elements to an offense that has established a reputation as the country’s most consistently excellent passing attack, thrusting the Eagles into the Big Sky Conference title hunt once again.

But it’s an offense that includes a four-year starter at quarterback who is blossoming as a senior, a pair of differently built but equally explosive wide receivers and a pair of the league’s most talented running backs blasting through holes plowed by a reinvigorated offensive line that has Idaho State rolling.

Idaho State head coach Rob Phenicie in 2017/ by Brooks Nuanez

“I think Idaho State is more committed to the RPO than anybody in the league,” said Montana State head coach Jeff Choate, whose Bobcats play ISU in Pocatello on Saturday afternoon. “Eastern is the runner-up in that regard. But Idaho State is so committed to the RPO stuff and they run the ball so well that it makes it even more explosive when they are able to get open receivers. (Senior quarterback Tanner) Gueller is extremely accurate. He spots the ball very, very well.”

The RPO has been a key cog in the Bengals ranking second in the nation in total offense (543.6 yards per game) and second in the Big Sky in scoring offense at 41.3 points per outing. ISU is averaging 45 points and 594 yards per Big Sky game, showing a ridiculous balance that has seen the Bengals throw for a league-best 327 yards per outing while also ranking second in the league in rushing yards per game at 267 per game.

Idaho State head coach Rob Phenicie served as the offensive coordinator at Montana from 2003 until 2009, helping the Grizzlies to seven straight Big Sky titles, seven straight national playoffs and three appearances in the FCS national title game. Although under Bobby Hauck’s Griz earned a reputation as one of the most intimidating power run teams in the conference, an early version of the RPO helped wide receivers like Marc Mariani put up prolific stats and gash teams with game-breaking big plays.

“We ran a system that was very similar to these RPOs that were a portion of our offense at Montana. We called it zone check,” Phenicie said. “With that, we would actually look at the defense and call the play.

“What the RPO has transitioned into, we call the play and it encompasses everything, the run and the pass. We don’t have to call it. It’s kind of weird how the evolution has come out but it utilizes your practice time a lot better. Our receivers don’t block. We don’t have a 10-minute stock blocking period. Now you spend time working your routes. It helps to have two good running backs, a group of good receivers and a quarterback who understands what we we are trying to do.”

Idaho State running back Ty Flanagan (23) tackled by linebacker Brayden Konkol (L) & defensive tackle Zach Wright (R)

And Phenicie said “the main reason we can do it is because of Tanner.”

The Bengals are off to a 3-1 start in league play thanks to an offense led by Gueller, a fifth-year senior who has thrown for 2,072 yards and 18 touchdowns this season, his fourth at the controls of the offense. A physical offensive front spearheaded by junior honors candidate center Dallen Collins has helped plow holes for senior tailback James Madison (741 yards, 10 TDs) and junior Ty Flanagan (621 yards, six TDs).

“The offensive line has been unbelievable,” Gueller said. “What (offensive line) Coach (Roman) Sapolu has been able to do with those guys and seeing what a veteran offensive line can do when they’ve seen every look you can throw at them, they are just competitors. They have a little nasty to them and they work their tails off on every single play.”

Idaho State quarterback Tanner Gueller/ by Brooks Nuanez

Idaho State’s 239 rushing yards per game helps soften opposing defenses, forcing opponents to stack the box and leaving defensive backs on islands, just like what happened to Idaho in ISU’s 62-28 dismantling of its in-state rival the first Saturday of October.

“Idaho State’s run game opens up their pass game,” MSU secondary coach Mark Orphey said. “If you can run the ball, you can do anything you want. That’s probably why they had so much success with the RPO stuff. Their run game, that’s more dominant and prominent than anything on the field.”

When they draw man coverage, junior wide receivers Mitch Gueller and Michael Dean punish opponents. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Gueller is the older brother of the ISU quarterback but is a year behind in eligibility because he spent four years in the Philadelphia Phillies minor league system after getting selected in the first round of the MLB draft in 2011. Dean, a former California track champion, leads the Bengals with seven touchdown receptions despite standing just 5-foot-6.

“We had a lot of success running the football early in the season, which forces teams to get more hats in the box and try to stop the run, which then gets you in a lot of one-on-one matchups on the outside and you have to be able to attack that,” Idaho State first-year offensive coordinator Mike Ferriter said. “Our personnel at the receiver position, we’ve done a good job of beating those man to man matchups and our quarterback has done a good job of seeing things. There are multiple times this season where he checks out of things and gets to his own play and he makes me look like a genius when in fact I have a terrible play call on and he made me right.”

The Montana connections don’t stop at Phenicie. Ferriter was an All-Big Sky wide receiver for the Griz, finishing his career in 2008 as one of 11 Griz to surpass 2,000 career receiving yards. Ferriter got his coaching start at UNLV under Hauck and Phenicie as a graduate assistant before coming to Idaho State as a wide receivers coach for Mike Kramer in 2012.

Ferriter spent the last three seasons coaching for Bob Stitt at his alma mater. At its essence, aside from the prolific play count and the four-receiver formations and the fly sweeps, Stitt’s up-tempo box count offense is triggered off the inside zone run and at its best thrives off downfield shots on RPO reads.

“I think this is a little bit of a hybrid of what they were doing at Montana and the places that Coach Phenicie has spent,” Choate said. “Coach Phenicie on the run game and the RPOs, it shows up heavily. But there’s a lot of 3×1, 2×2 sets, the run game with the inside zone, they do push the ball down the field more vertically than Coach Stitt did at Montana. But I do see some similarities.”

Tanner Gueller first got thrown to the wolves as a redshirt freshman in 2015 after learning former offensive coordinator Don Bailey’s scheme while sitting out in 2014. Gueller operated Sheldon Cross’s offense a year before Matt Troxel, another former Montana wide receiver, took over calling plays in 2016. Troxel took a job at Oregon State in the off-season, opening up the position for Phenicie to hire Ferriter, a decision the head coach calls “a no-brainer.”

Former Montana wide receivers coach Mike Ferriter, Idaho State’s offensive coordinator/ by Brooks Nuanez

“When I took this job, I fell into a good situation,” Ferriter said. “We have a pretty experienced team, pretty veteran team top to bottom.

“The biggest challenge initially in taking this job was the thing this offense hasn’t had in the past four to five years is any consistency. With another coordinator change, that was my No. 1 goal: coming in, taking what they’ve had here in the past, the terminology, conceptually the meat and potatoes of what they’ve done and keeping that the same, then coming in with a fresh set of eyes and reviewing the seasons of the past, seeing what they’ve done, tweaking it and putting in my own little twists on things.

“My thought on this offense was that toward the end of the season, it dries up. So you always have to keep adding different, fresh ideas, different looks, things that make a defense think a little bit.”

That flexibility and wiliness to cater to the formidable pieces already in place has helped Ferriter win over the Idaho State offense quickly, in turn leading to the eye-popping production.

“A lot of what we are doing on offense is just Coach Ferriter’s personality,” Tanner Gueller said. “You really feel the confidence he has in us to do what we do. As an offense, guys on the offense feeds off of that when a coach believes in you and draws things up for you. Playing confident is key for us.

“He is very smart, very analytical and I feel like he is really on top of the game right now in terms of what he is seeing.”

The results have turned heads around the league even if ISU enters the MSU matchup on a two-game losing streak. Tanner Gueller is averaging more than 17 yards per completion, the high water mark a 492-yard, eight-touchdown rip through Idaho’s defense on just 19 completions.

ISU rushed for 243 yards and totaled 562 yards of offense in a 44-37 overtime loss at No. 6 UC Davis two weeks ago. Last week, Idaho State earned 28 first downs and surpassed 600 yards of total offense before falling just short to FBS Liberty in Lynchburg, Virginia, 48-41.

Mitch Gueller is averaging a gaudy 22.1 yards per catch. He has 40 grabs for 885 yards and seems well on his way to first-team All-Big Sky honors for the second straight season. He had eight catches for 175 yards against Davis. He had nine catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns against Liberty.

Dean is averaging 18.3 yards per catch thanks to 604 yards on 33 catches and four of his seven touchdowns have gone for at least 42 yards. He hauled in six passes for 210 yards and a 57-yard touchdown against Liberty.

Montana State, particularly the Bobcat secondary, is keen on Idaho State’s abilities as MSU heads to Holt Arena.

“No. 20 is super fast,” MSU junior safety Jahque Alleyne, a Virginia Tech transfer, said. “I like his quickness. I feel like he will be a problem. No. 2 is a physical big receiver. Nothing that I haven’t seen before but they will definitely through some jump balls to him because that’s obvious.

“RPO is always a challenge, I don’t care what anybody says. I hate RPOs as a DB because you have to read run but be careful for the quick slant, the short pass. We are willing to step up to the challenge but it’s definitely going to be just that: a challenge.”

Photos contributed or by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved. 

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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