POCATELLO — Michael Dean and Mitch Gueller both scored touchdowns, Ty Flanagan was the workhorse for the offense, and Kody Graves led the defense in tackles.
But it was far from business as usual Thursday for the Idaho State Bengals against Western Colorado.
In both teams’ season-opener at Holt Arena, the Bengals let the NCAA Division II Mountaineers hang around until deep into the third quarter before finally pulling away for a 38-13 win that could have been much closer.
“It’s nice to be 1-0,” Idaho State head coach Rob Phenicie said. “It’s fun to win games. … We have a lot to clean up. It was not our finest product by any stretch of the imagination.”
Senior Idaho State cornerback Anthony Ricks made the play of the game on a kickoff return in the third quarter, racing nearly the whole length of the field to tackle Western’s Malcom Wesley at ISU’s 1-yard line.
If Wesley had housed the kickoff return, it would have cut Idaho State’s lead to 24-13 and sucked the life out of the announced crowd of 4,770.
Instead, ISU’s defense got a chance to keep the Mountaineers out of the end zone, and on second down, Oshea Trujillo intercepted a pass to the flat and returned it to ISU’s 20.
“(I was just thinking) run. Run as fast as I can and get him,” Ricks said. “Thank God I made it, and then (Trujillo) finished it off. That was a hell of a play, great interception, great return.”
The Bengals (1-0) scored on the ensuing drive, pushing the lead to 31-6 and sent the game into garbage time.
Quarterback Matt Struck, playing his first game for ISU, threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns. Wide receiver Tanner Conner had nine catches for 164 yards and two scores.
Despite the win, Idaho State fans might have left Holt Arena on Thursday with more questions than answers, or at least some doubts about a team that was advertised as a contender for an FCS playoff berth.
Most anticipated a blowout against the Mountaineers (0-1), who finished 2-9 a year ago and were picked near the bottom of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.
Instead, the Bengals, despite outgaining Western 532 to 178, struggled, particularly in the first half.
Struck, a junior, trotted out to play the first series at quarterback, resolving a battle with senior Gunnar Amos that lasted throughout fall camp.
Struck played the whole game and put up gaudy stats, but was inconsistent, completing 22 of 41 passes, throwing an interception and fumbling once.
“I made some throws, but we need to clean up some protection stuff, the O-line, me being on the same page with them,” Struck said. “I feel like if we had that from the beginning, the score would be a little different. We came out a little rusty on some drives.”
Struck hit Dean for 40 yards on his very first play and finished that drive by hooking up with Gueller for a 20-yard touchdown, but after starting 2 for 2, he completed 1 of his next 5 pass attempts, taking two sacks in that stretch as well.
With the running game also struggling to get going — Ty Flanagan had 38 yards on 10 carries at halftime — the Bengals’ offense stalled, punting on three straight drives before Struck found a wide-open Dean for a 45-yard score early in the second quarter.
Dean had three catches for 94 yards at halftime and finished with eight for 155 and the score.
His touchdown catch wasn’t the shot in the arm the Bengals needed, though.
Looking to add more points before halftime, Struck was hit as he threw. The ball went right to Western Colorado’s Zach Gomez, and he returned the interception to the Bengals’ 28.
A first down later, Chandler Davis split the uprights with a 46-yard field goal as time expired to get Western Colorado on the board.
“It sucked, but I try to have as short a memory as possible, because everyone else is looking towards me as the quarterback,” Struck said. “So I needed to make sure I forgot about that and came out with a clear mind.”
ISU’s Kevin Ryan and Davis traded field goals early in the third quarter to make it 17-6 before the Bengals put together an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that Struck capped by faking a handoff to Flanagan and running in from a yard out.
At 24-6, it looked like Idaho State was finally going to assert itself and run away with the game, but Wesley nearly ruined that plan on the kickoff, taking it at the 13, cutting left, and nearly breaking the big one before Ricks’ hustle stopped him at the 1.
After Trujillo’s interception, the offense drove 79 yards for a score to put the game out of reach.
On fourth-and-2 from Western’s 11, Struck checked from a run play into a fade route for Conner, who came down with a leaping, twisting catch in the corner of the end zone to make it 31-6.
“I thought we were going to hand it (off), and he checked fade, and I was like, ‘Oh, OK. Well, I have to go get it now,’” Conner said. “He trusted me, he threw a great ball, and I went up and got it.”
Conner, a junior who had 13 catches for 172 yards in his ISU career prior to Thursday, nearly matched those marks in one game. Struck targeted him 19 times as the Mountaineers fixated on all-conference receivers Dean and Gueller.
“They were rolling three-cloud (coverage) into Mitch all day, doubling Mitch,” Struck said. “We tried to go away from that rotation. … Tanner’s really made a lot of improvements, he’s worked really, really hard over the whole offseason, and the work speaks for itself. He had a really good day.”
Midway through the fourth, Taupule Asotau returned a Struck fumble 56 yards for a touchdown before Conner ran by the Mountaineers’ defense and hauled in a 63-yard score to cap his breakout day.
Flanagan ran for 96 yards on 22 carries for Idaho State.
Graves and Kainoa Fuiava each had six tackles and Luke Holloway had two sacks for the defense, which held Western to 2.6 yards per play.
“I felt like we made a lot of plays, personally,” Trujillo said. “The offense was struggling a little bit, but we held our own and gave the offense an opportunity.”
After a long week, Idaho State plays Sept. 14 at Utah.
Starting left tackle Jack-Eli Tufono left the game with an injury in the first quarter and did not return. ... Left guard Jacob Molenaar took his place, with Zion Dixon coming off the bench to slide into Molenaar’s spot. ... Linebackers Holloway and Aren Manu also left the game injured for the Bengals. Holloway later returned. ... Flanagan picked up a knock late but returned, although redshirt freshman Soujah Gasu handled most of the carries from then on. ... Dean, after not returning punts last year, was back in that role Thursday. He neglected to fair catch the first one of the game and was immediately tackled, but played it safe from then on, fair-catching the rest of the punts Western Colorado sent his way. ... Three freshmen saw the field for Idaho State — safety Quantraill Morris-Walker, running back Malakai Rango and long snapper Zach Wallace.
Defensive heroes Anthony Ricks (left) and Oshea Trujillo addressed the media after Idaho State's 38-13 win over Western Colorado Thursday pic.twitter.com/aamCUKOph1— Andrew Houghton (@AndrewH202) September 6, 2019