POCATELLO — The Idaho State Bengals want to establish the run first.
Last week, they struggled to do it in the first half against Division II Western Colorado.
This week, they’ll have to do it against one of the best defenses in the country.
And if they can’t get even the slightest toehold in the run game against FBS No. 11 Utah, Saturday could be a long day for the Bengals’ offense.
“We run first, and the coaches always tell us that we’re a run-first team, then we pass,” ISU running back Ty Flanagan said. “So that’s just something that we stress and something that we take to heart. We’re going to run first, try to ground and pound, beat them on the ground.”
For the latest example of how it all starts with the run game for ISU, look no further than last Thursday’s 38-13 win over Western.
Flanagan, after running for 15 yards on two carries on Idaho State’s first touchdown drive, struggled to get going the rest of the half.
He finished the first 30 minutes with 38 yards on 10 carries, and the Bengals scored just once more in the half to take a 14-3 lead to the locker room.
”We have to get some protection issues resolved,” head coach Rob Phenicie said. “Some stuff with the running backs, we can’t dance around so much, we have to knife. We started to do that in the second half, (but we) had to knock some rust off.”
Flanagan, the running game and the offense as a whole all improved in the second half.
The big back had 12 carries for 58 yards after halftime, and the Bengals’ offense put up 24 points to eventually blow out the Mountaineers.
”We really pride ourselves on running the ball first and really being a ground-and-pound team and having that set up the pass, and I think that kind of got out to a slow start,” quarterback Matt Struck said postgame. “But then we kind of got into the groove (running the ball) and they started bringing everybody into the box and we were throwing it out.”
This Saturday, establishing the run will take a Herculean effort.
Utah is 21st in FBS in run defense, giving up 79.5 yards per game, but those numbers are skewed because the Utes are one of just a few top teams who have already played two FBS opponents.
In reality, led by all-Pac-12 linemen Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu, Utah might be one of the best run-stopping units in the country. They finished fifth in rush defense a year ago.
”They know what they want, and they recruit those kinds of guys,” Idaho State defensive line coach Lei Talamaivao, a former D-lineman at Utah, said. “Inside, you have to be stout, great pass-rusher, motor, athleticism. They’ve been putting NFL guys out for years now ... (and) they’ve had the same defense since (head coach Kyle) Whittingham has been there. Nothing has really changed, the structure of it, what type of body they want inside, what kind of athleticism they want on the outside, so I think that’s why it’s been progressive in the right way for those guys.”
All the talent on the other side of the ball brings up a little bit of a catch-22 for the Bengals — they want to establish the run early to move the ball more effectively later, but trying to run into the teeth of the Utah defense might be their least effective way of getting any yards at all.
That puts a lot on the shoulders of Flanagan and the offensive line, and they know what they have to do.
”(Utah’s) front seven is really dominant,” Flanagan said. “They have two All-American D-linemen that are really good, and they have linebackers that fill the gaps. ... They man up everybody across the board and just use their physicality. That’s something that we have to do coming into this game, is be more physical than them. If we want to get yards, we have to be more physical than them and take it right to them, knowing that they’re not going to give nothing back, they’re going to take it to us.”
The senior running back has a good resume against FBS schools. He ran 25 times for 106 yards and a touchdown against Utah State in 2017 and followed that up with another touchdown the next week as the Bengals beat Nevada.
Against California last year, he put up 50 yards on 11 carries and added another score.
”I don’t care about the rankings, I don’t care about their name, we all put the pads on the exact same way,” Flanagan said. “It doesn’t matter that we’re a lower school. In the end, we all put the pads on the same way and we’re going to grind the same way. We’ve been working hard just like they’ve been working hard, so we’re going to try our best and do what we can to get this W.”