Idaho State begins conference play in Holt Arena on Sept. 29 with a game against Sacrament State, this coming three weeks after a home contest with Division II opponent Black Hills State.
Smack-dab in the middle, ISU faces a program that is easily the most difficult and by far the most storied opponent on its schedule as it heads to Lincoln to face the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Saturday.
“A great opportunity awaits us,” head coach Mike Kramer said during Tuesday press conference. “One of the great things in America is going to Yellowstone Park, going to Mount Rushmore and going to a Nebraska football game. We’re not necessarily going as tourists, but we want to enjoy the trip and enjoy the process.”
It’s not entirely accurate to say that the Bengals are focused on Sacramento State and overlooking Nebraska — because essentially it’s impossible to overlook the ‘Huskers — but a conference title is and always has been the team’s goal.
“We’re preparing to win the Big Sky Conference championship,” Kramer said. “The fact that we play a non-conference game this weekend allows us to be able to make sure we’re folded ourselves into the concept of being able to come back and play at home next weekend in our conference opener.”
Kramer’s words show a stark difference between Idaho State’s approach to the game and that of the Cornhuskers.
“This is like their Super Bowl game,” Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez told reporters on Monday.
The Bengals disagree.
“I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean,” said senior wide receiver Derek Graves. “It’s not a Super Bowl, it’s just another game. We’re going out to play them just like we did Black Hills State and Air Force. It’s not a Super Bowl. Our Super Bowl is at the end of the year when we play for the Big Sky championship.”
Idaho State is excited to play at Nebraska, but isn’t putting any extra emphasis on the task.
“We’re preparing just like we would for any game,” said redshirt sophomore linebacker Jake Pele. “We’re preparing just like a conference opponent. We’re playing against a prestigious program like Nebraska, so it’s an honor.”
The distinction and history of football at the University of Nebraska is something that is not lost on ISU’s players. Just don’t expect them to get caught up in it.
“We’re excited, (but) it’s just another game of football,” Pele said. “We’d be just as excited when we get 12,000 here at Holt Arena. I mean, where you’re playing a prestigious program like Nebraska in a stadium that has 300 consecutive sellouts, it’s pretty exciting. But it’s a football game.”
“It’s a huge stadium. It’ll be a fun game to go out there,” said senior quarterback Kevin Yost. “We’ll approach it like any other game, but it is definitely Nebraska. So it’s going to be cool.”
Idaho State is looking forward to the challenge that the Cornhuskers will provide. By no means will it be easy, but the team looks at the contest as another way to prepare for Big Sky play.
“For us, this is a continued opportunity to prove how much better we are than we were last week against Black Hills State,” Kramer said. “Hopefully it’ll translate into being more positive, more explosive and more able to play our positions in all aspects of the game against Nebraska.”
“It definitely prepares us because we’re not going to see another team like that, not another team that’s as big and fast as Nebraska,” Yost said. “They’re a great team overall and nationally ranked. Playing them definitely gives us a good idea of what we have to do to get better.”
As with any opponent, regardless of conference affiliation or level, the Bengals grade success by how they execute and not necessarily the final point tally.
Kramer was asked what a win this weekend would tell him about his team. After a short pause and a laugh he rephrased the question.
“I would just say that if we play successfully this week, is how I’d rather term it, it would tell us that we’re more mentally tough than we’ve been in the past,” he said. “And for us the mental toughness has been a hallmark of what good teams have.”
“I wouldn’t say this program is as mentally tough yet as we need to be,” he said. “We need to be more competitive on every play, and there will be 205 to 220 plays on Saturday and we will measure those 11 guys on the field those 205 times and see how mentally tough they are.”
Therein lies the reason why Idaho State has a team like Nebraska on its schedule.
“I will know more at the end of the game then where we’re at as we gird ourselves for a great Big Sky Conference opportunity,” Kramer said.
Bengal fans can watch their team on the Big Ten Network (DirecTV channel 610) on Saturday. The game begins at 1:30 p.m. Mountain Time.
“When you have success against a team like Nebraska, when we stop them or whatever the case may be, it gives you confidence,” Pele said. “If you can hang with a Big Ten opponent it just gives you confidence. If you can compete at a high level, at their caliber, you should be good to go. It gives you confidence going into Sac. State.”
“I think we can compete with any team.”