About a year ago, now-senior Idaho State center Dallen Collins summed up the sentiments toward the Bengals that continue to swirl around a happier Pocatello.
“We’re not the little red-headed stepchild — orange-headed stepchild — anymore,” he said after ISU’s tide-turning, 62-28 thumping of Idaho’s football team on Oct. 6, 2018, during which the Bengals roasted the Vandals’ secondary for eight touchdowns and snapped a laundry list of program marks before a raucous, record crowd at Holt Arena.
Idaho State, coming off only its second winning season in 15 years, has morphed from a league doormat to a legitimate postseason contender while its counterparts to the north have continued a two-year backslide into league obscurity.
At 3:30 p.m. MT Saturday in the Kibbie Dome, ISU will get a shot at strengthening its state chokehold, and knocking off the Vandals in Moscow for the first time since 1981, the same year it won a national championship in one of only two all-time playoff appearances.
That was during the brief halcyon in Pocatello. Before and after, the lulls have been immense, but Idaho State is on the verge of humbling its neighbors again, and logging just its third two-game winning streak against UI since the series began in 1916 (UI leads all time 28-12).
“To be able to say we went 2-0 against them in their first two years down, that’d be special,” said Bengals linebacker Kody Graves, a Skyview High grad.
Idaho State sits 3-3, 2-1 in the Big Sky in the midst of its second-half push for the playoffs. It offensively manhandled Portland State 51-24, and its only defeats have come to Football Championship Subdivision top-10 teams Montana and Northern Iowa, as well as AP Top 25 team Utah of the Pac-12. It’d probably need a win to stay alive for contention.
The Bengals, with their 30 in-state players, haven’t overlooked the game for “King Spud” — as the basketball rivalry once was known — like the Vandals might have in 2018.
“They’ll be waiting for us; it’ll probably be a donnybrook,” third-year ISU coach Rob Phenicie said during the conference’s media days. “It should be rivalry weekend. Think about it — Montana/Montana State, Idaho/Idaho State. That’s the way it ought to be.”
The Bengals boast 27 seniors in a notably local-bred roster that features one of the conference’s most tested offensive lines, one of its most clamp-down rushing defenses and a corps of skill players whose explosiveness rivals the FCS’ elite.
“They put a lot of points on the board,” UI coach Paul Petrino said.
Breakout quarterback Matt Struck, a strong-armed 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior and first-year starter, beat out former Vandal Gunnar Amos in a quarterback competition earlier this season. Amos gave up football afterward and, at times, Struck’s made opposing secondaries ponder retirement.
He’s a deep-ball specialist who sits atop the Big Sky in passing efficiency (166.1) and has thrown the fewest interceptions (one). Struck has thrown for 1,358 yards and 15 touchdowns and is completing 56 percent of his passes.
“He has an unbelievable arm; I don’t think I’ve seen that sort of gunslinger at this level in a long time,” said bulky senior receiver Mitch Gueller, one of many thorns in UI’s side last year who makes up one-third of ISU’s imposing stock of pass-catchers. In the Bengals’ domination of North Dakota on Saturday, Gueller broke the school’s all-time receiving record. He’s now accumulated 2,938 yards.
The trio of Gueller, slot man Michael Dean and the 6-3 high-point specialist/deep threat in Tanner Conner have combined for 13 touchdowns and more than 1,200 yards.
“I’ve been talking about our confidence in Matt all season,” Conner said. “Especially with our receivers, it just gets better every week. ... He’s able to make something out of nothing.”
Ty Flanagan, the Big Sky’s leading per-game rusher (99.5 yards), has flashed a healthy power-speed balance behind the league’s oldest O-line, albeit one that’s been hit and miss in pass protection, an area of concern in losses to box-heavy Northern Iowa and Montana.
That’ll be the Bengals’ primary objective — subdue UI’s front seven enough to build an edge early, which could prove insurmountable for a Vandals offense that’s been troubled in games of catch-up.
“When we’re rolling, everyone’s doing their job and executing, we’re very hard to defend,” said tackle Jacob Molenaar, who lines up beside Idaho transfer Zion Dixon, a Lake City grad and two-game starter for the Vandals in 2016.
Phenicie noted Idaho State is as hungry as ever. The Bengals finished 2018 at 6-5, one game shy of snapping their 35-year playoff drought. Another win against UI — this time at the Vandals’ homecoming — would verify last season “wasn’t a fluke.”
“For too many years at Idaho State, good seasons were followed up by terrible years,” Phenicie said. “That’s something these guys and I won’t let happen.”
It hasn’t yet. The Bengals aren’t the Gem State’s stepchild anymore.
Montana Tech at College of Idaho, 1 p.m. Saturday
Montana Tech visits NAIA No. 8 College of Idaho, which is 5-0. The two teams met earlier this season in Butte, Montana, with the Yotes winning 28-14. The Yotes led 21-0 midway through the fourth quarter and outrushed the Orediggers 347-118.
The Idaho Statesman contributed to this report.