ISU football: Keys to victory, players to watch for the Bengals and Vandals
IDAHO STATE’S KEY TO VICTORY
1. Gouge on the ground
ISU enters Saturday’s game ranked 17th in the FCS with 240.5 yards rushing per game. Led by running backs James Madison and Ty Flanagan, and with help from mobile quarterback Tanner Gueller, the Bengals rolled up 315 yards rushing and six rushing scores in last week’s win over Northern Arizona.
Idaho is eighth in the Big Sky with 186.5 yards rushing allowed per game.
“They’ve got to stop the run, first of all,” Idaho coach Paul Petrino said of his defense. “You’d better stop that running back (Madison) first. That’s the No. 1 thing. … That’ll probably be a huge factor in the game will be which team runs the ball better.”
2. Win the turnover battle
ISU has won the turnover battle in every game this season, and is ninth in the FCS with an average turnover margin of plus-1.5 per game. Idaho State’s 11 turnovers gained this season are good for third in the Big Sky.
The Vandals struggle in that category, tying for last in the FCS with an average turnover margin of minus-2.5 per game. Idaho committed seven turnovers in its season-opening, 79-13 blowout loss at Fresno State, and has yet to claim a takeaway this season.
3. Play mistake-free on special teams
Idaho has capitalized on special teams this season.
The Vandals have two punt return touchdowns and have blocked a combination of three kicks and punts. ISU was hit for a kick return TD and a near-punt return score against California, and has had four kicks and punts blocked this season.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Idaho State
RB James Madison
The reigning Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Week, Madison ranks among the FCS’ elite rushers this season.
Madison is 24th in the FCS with 429 yards rushing, 19th with 107.3 yards per game and third with seven rushing touchdowns. His 146 ground yards and two rushing scores last weekend against Northern Arizona led the Bengals’ 315-yard, six-TD rushing attack in the 56-42 win.
Madison can take advantage of an Idaho rushing defense that allows 4.6 yards per carry and 186.5 yards rushing per game.
“Right now, James Madison’s playing probably as good as anybody,” Idaho coach Paul Petrino said.
ISU coach Rob Phenicie didn’t say who would start in place of linebacker Kody Graves and safety Adkin Aguirre, who are suspended for the first half of Saturday’s game, per NCAA rules. Graves and Aguirre were ejected for targeting in the second half of last weekend’s game against Northern Arizona.
Some candidates to fill in for Graves are Aren Manu and Luke Holloway, and Jayson Miller figures to replace Aguirre, is he’s available. Miller was inactive last week.
Graves and Aguirre rank first and third, respectively, on the Bengals with 33 and 26 tackles this season.
CB Andy Whittier/RB Kieran Yancy
Idaho’s special teams are a mystery.
First, the good: the Vandals have two punt return touchdowns, on blocked punt and one blocked kick while leading the Big Sky conference in punt return yards and net kickoff coverage. The bad? Idaho has allowed three blocked kicks, one blocked punt and ranks 11th in the Big Sky in kickoff returns.
ISU all-conference gunner Andy Whittier and return man Kieran Yancy may play vital roles in tipping the special teams battle toward the Bengals on Saturday. Yancy is averaging 14.5 yards per punt return with a long of 58 yards, and nets 20.4 yards per kick return. Whittier has made seven special-teams tackles.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Idaho
QBs Colton Richardson/Mason Petrino
Idaho is expected to use both signal-callers Saturday, as has been the case for most of this season.
Richardson and Petrino both played in Idaho’s first three games, until Richardson was inactive last week. He sprained his wrist two weeks ago against UC Davis.
Petrino has had more success through the air than Richardson, completing 62 of 99 passes for 695 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions. Richardson is 14-of-29 passing with 216 yards, three TDs and three picks.
Petrino can also make plays with his legs, evidenced by his 48 yards rushing and one rushing score on the season.
LB/TE Kaden Elliss
Elliss is a rarity in college football.
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound senior from Salt Lake City contributes on offense and defense for the Vandals, as a tight end and preseason All-American linebacker. Elliss has team highs in tackles for loss (5) and sacks (3.5), along with 18 tackles and three receptions for 20 yards in 2018.
On two occasions last season, Elliss recorded a sack and a touchdown catch in the same game, becoming the first FBS player to do so since 2013.
WR David Ungerer
Ungerer is another multi-dimensional Vandal.
The senior leads Idaho receivers with 22 grabs for 251 yards, and has added a punt return TD.
The 5-foot-10, 171-pound native of Pullman, Washington, leads Idaho with 103.8 all-purpose yards per game between his work in the receiving game, kick returns and punt returns.