POCATELLO — The Idaho State Bengals know the size of the task facing them this week.
ISU travels to Salt Lake City on Saturday to play Utah. The Utes are ranked 11th in the most recent AP Top 25, released Sunday.
“It’s going to be a loud environment, and a big challenge for the Bengals to go down to Rice-Eccles (Stadium) and take this bunch on,” ISU head coach Rob Phenicie said. “They’re all good. They’re good players. They don’t seem to have a weakness. I bet their scrimmages are something else though.”
And coming off a sloppy, half-frustrating, half-encouraging blowout win over Western Colorado last week, they know how much work is needed, even aside from the opponent they’ll be staring down over the weekend.
“We need to improve 11 players, both sides, all three phases of the game across the board,” Phenicie said succinctly after ISU struggled in a 38-13 win over Western, making unforced mistakes and letting the Division II team hang around until the third quarter.
It’s been a long time since the Bengals have played an FBS opponent as highly-ranked as Utah.
Idaho State lost 56-0 to No. 17 Washington in 2013 and 73-7 to No. 22 Nebraska in 2012.
“You never know what can happen,” Phenicie said. “Just go out and play your best and play your hardest, and it’s about what you can control, your attitude and effort. Let the chips fall. It’s a great opportunity. If you strive to play against the best, this is the opportunity that you get.”
In 2017, his first year as head coach at ISU, Phenicie and the Bengals snapped a multi-decade losing streak against FBS teams, beating Nevada 30-28. Prior to that, Idaho State hadn’t beaten a team from the higher classification since 2000, when the Bengals beat Utah State 27-24.
Utah’s biggest strength is its defensive line, which might be the best in the country.
Led by seniors Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu, the Utes have five sacks in two games and have held opponents to under 4 yards per carry.
“They’ve got big guys,” Idaho State center Dallen Collins said. “It just kind of is what it is, you just have to focus on finishing guys. With big guys like that, the one thing we kind of have an advantage over is conditioning. We’re able to go all four quarters. Sometimes bigger guys wear out a little bit, so that’s going to be where our advantage is, just wearing them out, finishing blocks and keeping going.”
Here are some other notes from ISU’s press conference on Monday.
- Phenicie revisited last week’s 38-13 victory over Western Colorado, explaining why he played quarterback Matt Struck all game over Gunnar Amos.
“I just felt we needed to get Matt into a rhythm,” Phenicie said. “We could have put (Amos) in at the end of the game, but Gunnar’s not a mop-up guy. He’s not a guy to go in and take snaps at the end of a game, he’s a starter-type guy. So we’re not going to do that to him.”
Phenicie also praised Struck’s demeanor during his Idaho State debut.
“Matt was very calm during the game, didn’t get fazed one bit,” Phenicie said. “When he came over to the sidelines, he didn’t show any level of anxiety or anything, and that was a good thing. Very calm, cool, collected guy.”
- Both offensive lineman Jack-Eli Tufono and linebacker Aren Manu were listed in their usual places on Idaho State’s depth chart for the Utah game — Tufono at starting left tackle and Manu at backup linebacker. Both left Thursday’s game and didn’t return. Manu was seen leaving the field on a cart after the game. If both are healthy enough to play, it would be a good sign for the Bengals.
- There are several connections between the coaching staffs at Idaho State and Utah. ISU cornerbacks coach Kam Yancy played two years as a defensive back for the Utes, and later spent three years as an assistant on staff there. New defensive line coach Lei Talamaivao played there for four years and was also an assistant coach with the Utes for two years.
On the other side, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham spent six years at Idaho State as an assistant from 1988 to 1993, serving as the linebackers coach and defensive coordinator. Current Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig overlapped with him for three of those years as the quarterbacks and receivers coach in Pocatello from 1989 to 1991.