Last August, Idaho State coach Mike Kramer said his team wasn’t quite ready to compete for a Big Sky championship. He did say the Bengals could be a great home team.
The Bengals finished a game out of the top spot in the league standings — and went 6-0 at Holt Arena.
So, what’s next coach-stradamus?
“We want to hang a (championship) banner in our arena,” Kramer said this August. “The journey isn’t close to being accomplished.”
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Idaho State (8-4, 6-2 Big Sky in 2014) has gone from a doormat with two league wins in Kramer’s first three seasons from 2011 to 2013 to a Top 25 team. The Bengals are ranked No. 24 in the preseason Football Championship Subdivision coaches poll.
Now there is something new in Pocatello: expectations.
“I like that we have them, and when you have them, it’s easier to coach guys trying to achieve them,” Kramer said.
Even more reason for optimism is a wealth of key returners, though the Bengals need to replace quarterback Justin Arias, who threw for 4,076 yards and 38 touchdowns. He was a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
The Bengals will start junior Michael Sanders, who threw for 3,827 yards and 38 touchdowns at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College in 2014.
“We weren’t in agreement if we’d take a transfer quarterback to come in this spring, and that’s my fault, waiting too late and praying to God no one swooped in,” Kramer said. “We only get 29 practices before the first game. Wish we had another 29, but he has the maturity, the experience and the tools to handle it.”
Sanders will be surrounded by talent, led by senior running back Xavier Finney (1,495 yards, 14 TDs) and senior wide receiver and Timberline High graduate Madison Mangum (83 catches, 1,234 yards, 10 TDs).
“Those guys rank right up there with the best there is,” Kramer said. “I think we have the best back in the league, and Madison’s a marquee guy.”
Kramer is excited for junior Jakori Ford to serve as a 1-2 punch with Finney, while returning his top seven pass-catchers. The offensive line also returns four starters, so the Bengals’ 40.3 points per game last season is repeatable.
Defensively, second-team All-Big Sky defensive tackle Tyler Kuder (Payette High) moves to end, and the senior again will be a key leader. The group took a big hit in fall camp when Columbia High grad Mario Jenkins suffered a season-ending injury. Jenkins was fourth in the Jerry Rice Award voting last season after racking up 120 tackles and three interceptions as a freshman LB.
Kramer said Meridian High grad Hayden Stout “has really become an every-down player” at middle linebacker as a junior. Senior safeties Taison Manu (Highland High) and Cody Sorensen combined for 205 tackles last season. The Bengals, who haven’t been to the FCS playoffs since 1983, yielded 31.4 points a game last season, just two years after giving up 53.8 ppg.
“We’re rising on defense, but sagged in the two big games (against Montana State and Eastern Washington),” Kramer said. “If we can continue to rise, get those elements taken care of, we’ll be where we want.”
After a breakout season, the Bengals need to maintain it, Kramer said, which is easier said than done.
“The year after Idaho State won the (I-AA) national championship in 1981, they went 3-8,” Kramer said. “You’ve got to do it year after year, that’s our challenge.”
AN OPPORTUNITY WITH THE SCHEDULE
The Bengals’ fate could be decided during a four-week stretch of the schedule. The three Big Sky powers, all nationally ranked in the preseason, visit Holt Arena during that time: Eastern Washington (Oct. 17), Montana (Nov. 7) and Montana State (Nov. 14). The only road trip is at Sacramento State (Oct. 24).