Nevada Football: First Look at the Idaho State Bengals
The Wolf Pack will host Idaho State in its first home game of 2021. Here’s our early preview of what to know about Bengals football.
A worthy FCS tune-up.
Nevada Football: First Looks at Non-Conference Opponents
The Nevada Wolf Pack will open up their 2021 home football slate by hosting the Idaho State Bengals on Saturday, September 11. ISU may not be a traditional FCS power, but Jay Norvell and company won’t want to sleepwalk against a team that, despite some tough breaks in the spring, has plenty of momentum upon which it can build throughout the fall.
Location: Pocatello, Idaho
Mascot: Benny the Bengal
Conference: Big Sky
2020 Record: 2-4 (2-4 Big Sky)
Head Coach: Rob Phenicie (fifth year; 15-25 overall). Though the Bengals have had only one winning season in Phenicie’s tenure, the 2021 spring campaign might have been a harbinger of things to come. For starters, the Bengals gave big-time Big Sky teams a run for their money seemingly every week, losing by a combined 13 points to Eastern Washington, UC Davis, and Weber State (the first two of which were ranked at the time).
Despite picked to finish ninth in the preseason conference poll, there’s a chance that ISU could sneak up on an unsuspecting opponent or two.
WR Tanner Conner
Conner, a senior from Kent, Washington, is the lone Idaho State player to have been named an all-conference performer from the FCS spring season and a preseason all-conference honoree. When you consider that he averaged over 20 yards per catch on his 34 receptions, which included three touchdowns, it becomes pretty easy to see why that’s the case.
That throw!! That CATCH!! Another one for Tanner Conner! pic.twitter.com/6CBcfTN3mk
— Idaho State Athletics (@ISUBengals) April 4, 2021
QB Tyler Vander Waal
The former Wyoming quarterback found his footing pretty quickly in the Big Sky and ended up being named the conference’s newcomer of the year at the end of the spring season. Though he only completed 54% of his passes, Vander Waal averaged a healthy 8.6 yards per attempt and accounted for fifteen touchdowns (12 passing, three rushing).
CB Jayden Dawson
Dawson arrived in Pocatello as a juco transfer and, like Vander Waal, made an instant impact in his first year as a starter. He led the Bengals defensive backfield with 30 total tackles and four passes defended, earning a spot on the first-team all-Big Sky defense as a result.
LB Oshea Trujillo
The senior linebacker has built a reputation for himself as someone who can create a bit of havoc, though last spring marked his first appearance as an all-conference defender. Trujillo landed on the second team after finishing second on the team with 34 total tackles, leading the way with nine passes defended, and pitching in 2.5 tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries.
By a lot of measures, the Idaho State offense wasn’t necessarily bad in the spring. The team ranked seventh in yards per pass attempt, 12th in third-down conversion rate, and in the top 40 by scoring offense and red zone conversion rate, but the running game and overall efficiency left a lot to be desired.
Every major piece is back for another go, though, and there’s plenty of room for growth. Running backs Malakai Rango and Raiden Hunter both averaged under four yards per carry, but Rango is a sophomore and Hunter is a freshman and both could probably benefit from regular fall preparation behind an offensive line that could stand for its own improvements after allowing 15 sacks in six games.
Idaho State also has a legion of freshman pass catchers, led by Christian Frederickson (20 catches, 243 yards, two TDs) and Xaiver Guillory (18 catches, 324 yards, four TDs) who could definitely see more work behind Conner this fall. While there isn’t a lot of proven depth behind Vander Waal at quarterback, if he stays healthy he’ll be in a position to air it out early and often.
Like the offense, this unit brings back nearly every major contributor. Unlike the offense, though, this side of the ball has a lot to prove after coughing up 6.26 yards per play and 32 points per game (only Cal Poly and Portland State bent more in the Big Sky, but they played just three games and one game, respectively).
It’ll start by getting a little more production up front. Junior Terrance Jones is the only returning defensive lineman who managed more than two TFLs this spring, which was offset some by the linebacker duo of Trujillo and Darian Green (4.5 TFLs, two sacks) but can’t erase the fact ISU only picked up ten sacks overall in the shortened season.
On the back end, Dawson could be joined in the secondary by some potential breakout candidates. Freshman safety Quantraill Morris-Walker (four passes defended, two INTs) and freshman cornerback Josh Alford showed plenty of promise in extended action, while reinforcements like Colorado State transfer Xavier Goldsmith could carve out a role, too.
The Wolf Pack should end up winning this one, but it won’t be too much of a shocker if the Bengals are able to find the end zone once or twice. They appear to have a bit of big-play capability, though whether they can tap into it more consistently is still an open question, which could enable them to hang around a little longer than expected.
Nevada 42, Idaho State 14