POCATELLO – All Raiden Hunter needed to do was bounce outside.
Take one hop to the left and he would have glided into the end zone untouched. One hop to the left and Idaho State would have tied North Dakota. One hop to the left and perhaps Idaho State’s season-opener wouldn’t have been so sour.
Instead, the Bengals freshman running back charged into a hoard of bodies. He was tripped up then pushed back. It was the anticlimactic end to Idaho State’s best drive of the afternoon: a 17-play, 70-yard journey that ate up over seven-and-a-half minutes of game clock.
For all that effort, though, Idaho State came away with zero points in its 35-14 loss to the eighth-ranked Fighting Hawks.
On four-straight plays, Idaho State ran the ball on the 1-yard line. And on four-straight plays, they couldn’t bust through. North Dakota’s 7-0 lead held, unruffled, for the next 45 minutes.
“We all felt confident in (our) ability to get one yard,” Idaho State coach Rob Phenicie said. “You can’t leave points on the board. That amounts to a turnover.”
It does – and Idaho State had plenty of those.
Coming off a 2-4 spring season, the Bengals felt good about themselves. Perhaps the wins weren’t there, they thought, but they battled and held fourth-quarter leads in three of their four defeats.
It seemed the Bengals had an opportunity to make a leap in 2021. And they still can, but confidence they can get off the ground is waning after Saturday.
Most concerning was the play of junior quarterback Tyler Vander Waal. Voted the Big Sky Newcomer of the Year in the spring, Vander Waal was solid but emphasized this fall the time and energy he spent trying to improve his accuracy and cut down on the 10 interceptions he threw in the six spring games.
Saturday only fueled the concerns surrounding Vander Waal.
The 6-foot-4, 217-pound long-haired gunslinger completed less than half of his 43 passes for 229 yards, a touchdown and an ugly three picks.
The first poor decision came on the game’s fourth play. The Bengals’ coaching staff had told Vander Waal to be cognizant of the ally defender getting out on hitch routes. On that fourth snap of the game, that ally defender, Hayden Galvin, jumped the hitch route and set up an easy North Dakota score.
“He really presses himself. Sometimes he presses too much,” Phenicie said of Vander Waal. “We just have to work on that in practice. He probably had some nerves on him, too. There’s a lot of pressure on him and he knows it.”
“When he’s on, he’s on. He’s lethal … “He just needed to settle down a bit.”
He wasn’t the only one. Senior wide receiver Tanner Conner – unanimously-regarded as the leader of the pass catchers – dropped a wide-open pass on fourth down late in the game. The Bengals defense, which held UND and its All-American running back Otis Weah to just 55 first-half yards, gave up 130 yards in the final two quarters. And a team that looked fast and physical a few months ago didn’t play with the same effort level.
“Did you think we looked like the same team from the spring?” senior linebacker Oshea Trujillo asked postgame. “It’s just getting that swag back … Coach Phen and Coach Coop (Defensive coordinator Roger Cooper) always teach that, attitude and effort. I don’t know if we had that today.”
After the loss, Trujillo spoke to the Bengals in the locker room – a senior captain pointing out with what the few thousand inside Holt Arena saw: “(I told them) we’re not going to win if we come out with that effort,” Trujillo said. “And we won’t.”
What helps the Bengals is the precedent of the spring. Idaho State started the shortened season with a four-score loss to No. 4 Weber State. It was ugly – just like Saturday. But the Bengals bounced back, won their next game and, when they played Weber again to end the season, ISU lost by just 5.
Although this 2021 team boasts far more experience – the Bengals returned almost everyone from the spring – Phenicie hopes ISU can replicate that level of improvement.
“I told them all of our goals are still in front of us at this point,” Phenicie said.
Added Trujillo: “Luckily it’s early.”