Idaho State-Northern Iowa football

Northern Iowa quarterback Will McElvain (13) is tackled by Idaho State's Oshea Trujillo during action at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.

As long as head coach Rob Phenicie and offensive coordinator Mike Ferriter have been at Idaho State, the Bengals have been defined by their offense.

In each of Phenicie's two years at the helm, the Bengals have averaged over 430 yards per game.

Last year, they had 494.9, ranking second in the Big Sky Conference and top-10 in the FCS.

The defense? Not so much.

The Bengals gave up 450.9 yards per game in 2018, ranking ninth in the conference and giving up 40 or more points in five games — nearly half the 11-game schedule.

This year, though, the ISU defense is flipping the typical Bengals equation on its head. It's been the defense carrying the offense, and not the other way around — through three games, Idaho State is 12th in the conference in scoring offense (15.3 points per game), but third in scoring defense (16.7).

For a performance that defines the early-season new world order at ISU, look no further than Saturday's 13-6 loss to No. 9 Northern Iowa.

On the road, against a top-10 team, the Idaho State defense balled out, holding UNI to just 234 yards and 12 first downs.

The Bengals kept Northern Iowa trapped on their side of the field for just about the entire first half. In the entire game, the Panthers had just one drive longer than 40 yards, and just three longer than 25. When UNI got good field position after Idaho State turnovers, the Bengals, with their backs against the wall, held them to field goals — twice.

It was an all-around performance from the defense, too, as just about everyone who played came up with a massive play at one time or another.

"We knew we had a good defense coming in. This isn’t surprising to us," linebacker Kody Graves said simply.

The Bengals showed flashes of this potential against Western Colorado, when they came up big in a few short-yardage situations, and Utah, when they held the Utes scoreless for most of the second half.

Saturday, they finally put it all together.

And it might just have changed the way people look at Idaho State for good.

Runnin' Ryan

ISU punter/kicker Kevin Ryan had an action-packed day Saturday.

First, he scored all of ISU's points with two early field goals, a 42-yarder in the first quarter and a 35-yarder in the second.

As ISU's offense bogged down after that, he was kept busy punting the ball, eventually kicking it away five times for 145 yards and dropping four of those inside the 20.

But Ryan's biggest play came on one that he didn't punt.

With Idaho State facing fourth-and-13 on its own 19-yard line in the third quarter, Ryan took the snap and rolled left as though he was preparing for a run-out, rugby-style kick.

Instead, he just kept running into acres of green grass in front of him, easily picking up the first down and eventually running out of bounds after a 27-yard gain.

It was the first whiff of trickery this season from an Idaho State team that kept its playbook buttoned shut through the first two games.

ISU's drive stalled soon after. Ryan's 27-yard carry was the longest gain of the day for the Bengals.

Bring 'Em Back

Northern Iowa had an uncommonly large number of big plays called back due to penalties or for other reasons.

A first-down pass on the Panthers' first possession was called back for a hold. After that, UNI didn't get its first, first down of the game until early in the second quarter, but that paled to what came later.

With Idaho State up 6-3 late in the third quarter, Panthers punt returner Jalen Rima broke a 27-yard return to the Bengals' 31. After a lengthy review, officials ruled that Rima, who waved his arm once near his face before fielding the punt, had actually signaled for a fair catch, costing UNI 27 yards worth of field position.

As Northern Iowa tried to kill the game off in the fourth quarter, Panther running back Tyler Hoosman ripped off a 60-yard carry before Adkin Aguirre chased him down. It would have been by far the longest gain of the day for either team, but officials called the play almost all the way back for a downfield hold.

To finish off the late trifecta of pain for Northern Iowa, Bryce Flater's interception-return touchdown late in the fourth was called back for an illegal block. The touchdown would have put UNI up 17-6 and effectively ended the game. Instead, with the return wiped out, Idaho State's defense held the Panthers to a field goal to keep the game within one score and give the offense one more chance.

Notes

- The last time Idaho State held a Division I team to 13 points or fewer was Nov. 1, 2014, when the Bengals beat Portland State 31-13 ... The last time the Bengals held a Division I team to 13 points or fewer and still lost was Nov. 7, 2009, when John Zamberlin's team fell 12-10 to No. 2 Montana ... Freshman offensive lineman Jacob Angel made his Idaho State debut, replacing Jacob Molenaar at left tackle for a few plays after Molenaar went down injured for a series in the first quarter ... Freshman linebacker Connor Wills made his first Idaho State start in place of the injured Kennon Smith and had eight tackles for the second-straight week, tied for the team lead ... Michael Dean had his longest punt return of the season, breaking a 23-yarder in the second quarter ... Junior running back Nehemiah McFarlin made a surprise return in the fourth quarter, running for 2 yards on two carries. It was McFarlin's first game action since 2017. He missed the entire 2018 season with a knee injury.