There seems to only be two ways to interpret the spring season.
Some want to grab all the records of the six-game, COVID-shortened campaign, burn them then shoot the ashes to the sun. Others take the results at face value – or at least close to it – arguing that football was still being played on 100-yard fields with 11 guys on each side.
Tyler Vander Waal is closer to the latter group. The Idaho State junior quarterback hasn’t watched replays of the Bengals half-dozen contests from a few months ago, but the postgame feelings aren’t leaving him anytime soon – emotions that probably became Deja Vu by the final week.
The Bengals went 2-4 last season, a mark that doesn’t fully encapsulate what Idaho State endured. Throw out its season-opening 49-21 loss to Weber State. In the five games after that, the Bengals secured its two victories by four combined points and their three losses were all by less than a touchdown.
Even worse, Idaho State had fourth-quarter leads in its final trio of defeats. They all dissolved. An 11-point advantage over No. 13 Eastern Washington crumbled in the final 30 seconds. No. 15 UC Davis scored a touchdown with eight seconds remaining to secure the four-point win. And in the season finale, No. 2 Weber State executed a go-ahead touchdown in the final two minutes to fend off the upset.
“Everyone knows what we’re capable of. Obviously we have a lot of talent and we can compete with anybody. Look at Eastern (Washington), we competed with those guys. Look at Weber, top-three team in the country, we competed with those guys,” Vander Waal said. “We’re definitely not scared of a challenge and I think it made us all more hungry.”
And that brings us back to the interpretation of the spring season.
Either you think of it as a developmental few months or a real litmus test of what’s to come in the 2021 fall season – and both perspectives seem to bode well for the Bengals. If nothing else, the Bengals are close – whether that’s close to staging an singular upset or close to competing for the Big Sky title is still to be determined.
“We hit that hump and now, this season, we’re talking about getting over that hump,” Vander Waal said. “We don’t necessarily frame ourselves around last season but we kind of use it as motivation to light a fire under our ass.”
That fire seems to revolve around small things, the minute details that routinely turned a toss-up game away from Idaho State. The season of close calls often fell on coach Rob Phenicie, who admitted his game management could have been much better towards the end of games.
“You don’t want to leave timeouts on the field, obviously, and there’s situations where we probably could have called timeouts,” said Phenicie, now in his fifth season as the Idaho State head man. “That’s one thing I have to be better at.”
If Vander Waal’s season went to plan, though, his head coach wouldn’t have any tough decisions to make in the waning minutes.
The Wyoming transfer had a first solid season in the orange and black, completing 54% of his passes for over 18 yards and 15 total touchdowns. But perhaps Vander Waal’s most indicative number was this: 10 interceptions.
“For a quarterback (to do that) in six games, it’s like, ‘What are you doing?’” Vander Waal said on Friday. “Just limiting those and being smarter with the football … I need to be more accurate. You look at 54% completion percentage, I’d like to get that up and be touching 60, 62%.”
For an Idaho State team that saw every game teeter on the most minuscule of things, any improvement could be the improvement that allows the Bengals to turn the corner.