Twitter is not always the best ecosystem to gauge opinions, but it sure is an effective measure to see who trekked over to ESPN+ to watch Idaho State football in real-time. And on Saturday, it was the venting space for fans on the Bengals’ rollercoaster.
First came the high.
Idaho State took the opening kickoff and showcased an offense that fans had been clamoring for. It was so creative. So simple. So effective. The Bengals only needed six plays and a little over two minutes to take a 7-0 lead on Northern Arizona. They made the game of football look deceptively easy.
Oshea Trujillo carried the ball for 21 yards. Quarterback Hunter Hays hit all-conference receiver, Tanner Conner, for seven yards. Then he connected with Conner for eight yards. Then Conner caught a 20-yard pass to put ISU in the red zone. Two plays later, Benji Omayebu scored on a wheel route from 17 yards out.
On Idaho State’s opening drive, Conner – the 6-foot-3 senior who led the Bengals with 34 catches and 636 receiving yards in the spring – had tied his season-high in catches with three.
“That first drive is what we’ve been waiting 3 games to see,” ISU fan Cameron Hicks tweeted in the moment. “Throwing short to Conner is fine due to his size. Refreshing play calling. I like it.”
What followed was 58 minutes of loops and twists aboard that rollercoaster.
The Bengals ran 29 more plays that half, racked up only 137 yards and didn’t score another point. Conner finished the game with just two additional catches for 32 yards. The Bengals ended up dropping their second Big Sky game by 31 points.
Sitting in a Zoom chat two days later, Conner was still a bit baffled.
“It’s obviously been frustrating for everybody,” he said. “I’m not the only one. I’m not the only person who has been frustrated. When you come into an offense like this that is supposed to be really explosive and you don’t produce, it’s frustrating for everybody.”
The offensive struggles have become a theme for the Bengals this season. Even acknowledging the learning curve Hays is facing as a freshman filling in for the injured Tyler Vander Waal, coach Rob Phenicie hasn’t been pleased with his passing attack, which bottomed out with only 136 yards passing against Sacramento State two weeks ago.
Afterward, in his most steaming press conference of the season, Phenicie vowed to fix the unit.
“One hundred and forty-six yards is not good enough,” Phenicie said then. “I’m an offensive guy. I know the passing game. I’m going to get this fixed.”
If there was change, it didn’t exactly show up in Flagstaff. The Bengals ran the ball at a solid clip of five yards a carry, but there wasn’t much improvement through the air. Hays completed less than 50% of his 39 attempts for 218 yards and three interceptions.
After four games, Idaho State ranks second-to-last in the Big Sky in scoring (15.5 ppg), last in passing yards a game (166.8), last in interceptions (eight) and last in passing touchdowns (four).
Even with those low marks, Phenicie reiterated on Monday that no drastic change is on the horizon ahead of ISU’s matchup with eighth-ranked UC Davis on Saturday.
“There are a few things that maybe schematically that we can say, ‘Hey, let’s just tweak this, tweak that,’” Phenicie said. “but when you go into a game week and start prepping, it’s a totally different deal.
“I have a list of things of what a great offense is. There are 10 items on there and one of them is, ‘Ranks high in statistics and scores a lot of points.’ That’s what a great offense is. Am I saying we don’t have a great offense? No, we do have a great offense, but we need to be more productive.”
In other words, the Bengals’ coach is saying it’s not the scheme that has gotten ISU to 0-4 but, rather, the execution.
That’s where Conner’s opinion seemed to differ.
“We’ve had the same system since I’ve been here,” he said. “Obviously, you’ve seen it executed in the past but the team is a lot different now. I would be open to change. We have different types of personnel. We have different types of players now.”
Conner continued, seeming ready to throw anything against the wall until something sticks.
“I think change can always be a good thing for a team, especially at a point like now where we’re 0-4 and we’re trying to do the same thing that’s not necessarily working out for us,” he added. “Maybe there are opportunities to make changes so that we can at least have a chance of improving our offense. If we continue down this path, it’s not going to be good for anybody. It’s not good for our mental health either.”
Conner came into this season with grand expectations. His spring season was exceptional, so good that the national notoriety had already begun to form. The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman listed him on the annual “Freaks List.” He was a preseason all-conference pick. Heck, his high school coach said he had received mail from NFL teams asking questions about Conner.
This seemed like the year Conner was poised to go from intriguing athlete to NFL prospect. Instead, it’s been a season of limited catches and heightened frustration.
He admitted change is ultimately up to the coaches and that his relationship with the staff is still positive. But Conner’s time in college is almost over, and he seems keen at going out swinging.
“I do believe when I’m targeted I feel like I can make a significant impact with our offense,” Conner said. “I also have to be consistent and have the coaches trust me as well to make those plays and give me opportunities to help our offense.”