3 BIG THINGS
It's tough to come up with three keys to victory for Idaho State in what should be a comfortable win. But, in early-season mismatches like this, there's winning and then there's winning. Assuming the Bengals do come out with a win, here are the three most important things they'll want to see. This isn't so much about Western Colorado, it's about what will set ISU up well going forward.
No Quarterback Questions
A wise man once said that having two quarterbacks is like having no quarterbacks. The Bengals could survive a controversy that stretched past the Western Colorado game, but it would make things a lot more complicated in every way. Gunnar Amos and Matt Struck have been battling for the starting job since spring, and it's time for one guy to make the job his. If Idaho State names a clear starter, the Bengals need that guy to blow the doors off the Mountaineers and leave no doubt. If they play both, which is likely, they need one to separate.
A Loud Crowd
Going into the season, the ISU fanbase should be more fired up than they've been in a long time. The Bengals are coming off their first winning season in four years and return experienced, proven talent at nearly position. Whether that will translate into more fans in the seats at Holt Arena is yet to be seen, but the Western Colorado game will provide the first data point. Home-field advantage can be a big factor in college football, and getting a packed house for the season opener, even if it is against Division II competition, could be a sign that Holt will be rocking for the big games this year.
A Clean Bill of Health
It's a cliche, sure, but that doesn't make it any less true in this matchup — the most important thing in this game, other than winning, is for the Bengals to escape without any major injuries. It's essentially preseason, and there are games that matter a great deal more down the road. ISU hardly suffered any significant injuries last year, particularly on offense, and needs to repeat that luck this year to post a second-straight winning record. Keep an eye on how long Rob Phenicie keeps his starters in the game.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Dylan Jacob (Jr. QB) — Jacob is heading into his third year as the main quarterback for the Mountaineers. After playing in seven games as a freshman, he took over the job for good early last season, throwing for 1,389 yards and 12 touchdowns against nine interceptions. If he continues to develop this year — he was already a great deal better as a sophomore last year than he was as a freshman — he could be one of the best quarterbacks in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.
Zach Manchester (Sr. WR) — Manchester was Jacob's top target a year ago, catching 34 passes for 364 yards. He's played since he was a freshman at Western, and, at 6-foot-2, has the size to at least trouble the Idaho State defensive backs.
Lane Farris (Jr. LB) — As a sophomore in 2018, Farris was a force for the Mountaineers. He led the team with 92 tackles, finishing seventh in the RMAC in tackles per game. He was also a menace rushing the passer, as his 4 1/2 sacks and 11 tackles for loss lead all returners for Western. He even forced two fumbles, tops on the team. All-around linebackers can anchor a defense, and Farris certainly fits the bill.
Tanner Conner (Jr. WR) — In what should be a blowout win, expect some unheralded players to put up big stats. Chief among those is Conner, who's been third on the depth chart for the Bengals this fall. If Mitch Gueller and Michael Dean don't play the whole game — or even the whole first half — Conner should get a whole bunch of targets. He has the size (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) and the speed (he's an all-Big Sky sprinter) to completely overwhelm the Western Colorado defensive backs.
Soujah Gasu (Fr. RB) — Along the same lines, if Ty Flanagan's workload is cut with the Bengals up big, expect Gasu to be the beneficiary. The redshirt freshman started turning heads during the spring and hasn't stopped since, making the backup running back job his. Because ISU likes to use two running backs, he'll figure to get plenty of carries this year anyway, but the Western Colorado game could provide one of his biggest statlines this season.
Gilbert Varela (Sr. DL) — Varela is the newcomer on the defensive line this year, joining the experienced duo of TJ Togiai and Kainoa Fuiava. A 6-foot, 277-pound senior who transferred in from Long Beach City College prior to the 2018 season, he had 3 1/2 tackles for loss in limited duty last year before winning a pretty intense competition in camp this fall. Varela still has plenty of players pushing him on the depth chart, so look for him to try to come out and make a statement in the season opener.