Hunter Hays Idaho State football

Idaho State freshman quarterback Hunter Hays delivers a pass against Portland State.

Idaho State’s defense collapsed. The eyes of the Bengals’ front seven were fixated in the Portland State backfield. They saw the handoff to Malik Walker. They saw Walker’s pitch to receiver Beau Kelly. Then they saw Kelly’s pitch back to quarterback Davis Alexander.

What they missed was Nate Bennett. The Vikings’ 6-foot-3, 195-pound freshman pretended to set the edge. Then he bolted toward green grass. He got loose down the sideline and Alexander floated a 44-yard touchdown to his wide-open receiver.

“Just a trick play,” said Idaho State coach Rob Phenicie. “We had bad eyes. That’s what happens. Either you have good eyes and you stop it or you have bad eyes and they score. And we had bad eyes.”

Portland State (3-4) continued stymying Idaho State for the rest of the day in the Vikings 31-10 win over the Bengals (1-5).

Some expected a revived performance from Idaho State following last Saturday’s shocking victory. After an 0-4 start, the Bengals forced three turnovers and handily beat No. 7 UC Davis at Holt Arena.

Afterward, coach Rob Phenicie uttered what every ISU fan hoped. “We showed who were capable of being today,” he said.

That sentiment is still true. The Bengals still have loads of talent. They still have the ability to beat good teams. They still have a team good enough to compete in the Big Sky.

They just didn’t show that on Saturday.

Oddly, Idaho State ran had more carries (22) than passing attempts (15) in the first half despite trailing nearly the entire time. Idaho State freshman quarterback Hunter Hays completed 10 of his 15 passes in the first two quarters but the Bengals’ rushing attack only managed to run for 2.2 yards a carry.

Last week, the Bengals excelled because of their defense. Idaho State came into the UC Davis game with zero interceptions and picked off three passes against the Aggies – two in the end zone. That was the difference.

On Saturday, it was again turnovers that were the difference. Hays threw two interceptions. Receiver Christian Frederickson fumbled on the Bengals’ first possession. Hays fumbled on the ISU 7-yard line. Then in the third quarter, Hays fumbled again just outside the red zone.

“It’s ridiculous. I’ve never been around anything like this,” Phenicie said. “I’ve never been around a team plagued by turnovers like this. We address ball security more than anything. You can ask any of our kids and they’re going to say ball security is a religion.

“But the interceptions,” Phenicie continued, “I don’t know if it’s a young quarterback or – I don’t know what. We’ll see what the diagnosis is.”

In total, Portland State scored 17 points off of Idaho State’s five turnovers. For ISU, that is both extremely frustrating and slightly encouraging.

The Bengals did not lose on Saturday because they were thoroughly outplayed or because they were outmanned. They lost because, with a freshman quarterback at the helm, they turned the ball over too much. That is not a death sentence for a football program. But it also isn’t encouraging.

Idaho State is not hovering in the depths of the conference. No, it’s Cal Poly and Southern Utah that have no Big Sky wins. But, just like those pair of conference foes, the Bengals have just a lone victory on the season.

Playing against a previously 2-4 Portland State team could have been the launching pad into a backstretch slate of hope and optimism.

Instead, it was a letdown.

Idaho State will travel to Bozeman next Saturday to play Montana State (6-1) at 1 p.m.

“What’s the resolve of this team going to be?” Phenicie asked. “Fight or flight.”