“Idaho State is back” — Bengals blast NAU 56-42 to start 2-0 in Big Sky play
POCATELLO – Most of Idaho State’s players weren’t alive the last time the Bengals were here.
But they all can say they had a hand in ending the drought.
ISU beat Northern Arizona 56-42 on Saturday to improve to 2-0 in Big Sky Conference play for the first time since 1995. A strong running game that piled up 315 yards and a defense that forced four turnovers helped the Bengals keep their share of an early-season tie atop the conference standings.
“There’s nothing like winning a football game,” running back James Madison said. “Week in and week out, there’s nothing like winning.”
The Bengals (3-1, 2-0 Big Sky) never trailed Saturday and stretched their lead as wide as 28 points in the second half. Madison rushed 19 times for 146 yards and two of the team’s six rushing scores, while the defense’s four turnovers turned into 21 points.
ISU took command of the game in the second quarter, when Madison’s 51-yard touchdown run, a 3-yard rushing score by Ty Flanagan and a 9-yard fumble return TD by Kainoa Fuiava flipped the game from a 14-14 tie to a 35-14 Bengals lead in a span of 3 minutes, 11 seconds.
Northern Arizona (2-3, 1-1 Big Sky) never got closer than 14 points the rest of the way, as ISU’s early-game blows forced the Lumberjacks into scramble mode with an ineffective run game and a backup quarterback.
Bengals linebacker Kody Graves intercepted NAU quarterback Daniel Bridge-Gadd, and ISU recovered three of NAU’s six fumbles – including Fuiava’s scoop-and-score and a touchdown-saving strip by Anthony Ricks on ISU’s 5-yard line.
ISU’s four takeaways highlighted the defense’s performance the same day the squad debuted its turnover belt.
“The goal was three (turnovers). We expect four,” defensive coordinator Roger Cooper said. “Any time we can give our offense, that’s so potent, give them more opportunities, it’s a positive for everyone. That was great. It was a big part of how that game turned out.”
ISU held NAU to 77 yards rushing on 34 attempts – NAU’s first game with under 100 yards rushing since October of last season. Bridge-Gadd, who started his third game filling in for injured starting signal-caller Case Cookus, was forced to use his agility to escape oncoming defenders and got sacked twice.
Twenty-eight of NAU’s 42 points and 282 of the offense’s 433 yards came after halftime, when the Lumberjacks were trying to rally.
ISU’s offense raced out to 295 yards in the first half, when it scored a touchdown on 4 of 8 possessions. Madison, Flanagan and Tanner Gueller each ran in a first-half touchdown and all added another after the break, helping the Bengals become the first FCS team to drop 50 points on NAU since Eastern Washington scored 50 in 2016.
ISU’s 56-point output is also the highest against NAU by an FCS team this decade.
Flanagan rushed for 86 yards, and Gueller added a career-high 84. The group averaged 6.4 yards per rush.
“That’s a tough defense to rush against,” Bengals coach Rob Phenicie said. “Roman Sapolu is an absolutely awesome offensive line coach, and he’s constantly tweaking the whole game. And then throw those two running backs in there as well, it’s fun to watch them go.”
ISU’s offense sputtered in the second half, and paired with injuries and a rash of penalties to make for a sloppy final 30 minutes. Graves and safety Adkin Aguirre were both ejected for targeting penalties and will be suspended for the first half of next weekend’s game against Idaho, per NCAA rules.
NAU outscored ISU 28-21 after halftime. ISU finished with nine penalties totaling 101 yards.
“We had them down, but we didn’t knock them out,” Phenicie said. “Any time you get up the way (we did), we’ve got to close them out, and we didn’t. That’s where we’ve got to be better.”
Gueller completed 15 of 32 passes for 179 yards, with one interception and an 8-yard TD pass to tight end Austin Campbell in the second quarter. Mitch Gueller led the receiving corps with four receptions for 56 yards, and linebacker Christian Holland led the defense with a career-high 11 tackles.
Northern Arizona’s Bridge-Gadd completed 30 of 56 throws for 313 yards, with two touchdowns and one INT. Cory Young rushed 13 times for 40 yards and two scores, and Emmanuel Butler hauled in eight balls for 187 yards and one TD.
NAU scored its first touchdown of the game on a blocked punt that was recovered in the end zone, and opened the third-quarter scoring with a trick-play pass from wide receiver Justis Stokes to Butler following Tanner Gueller’s interception.
Idaho State was picked to finish 10th in the league standings by the Big Sky media, and 12th by the league’s coaches. The Bengals continue their turnaround and join Montana and Eastern Washington atop the standings at 2-0.
In-state foe Idaho heads to Holt Arena next Saturday for the schools’ first matchup since 2008.
“Idaho State is back,” Madison said. “Coach Phen changed the program around. … We’ve still got work to do, but we’re 2-0. Two-game wining streak. There’s nothing better than that right now.”
- Madison moved up to ninth on ISU’s career rushing yardage list. The fifth-year senior is at 1,559 yards for his career.
- Tanner Gueller moved up to fourth place on ISU’s career passing yardage list. He now has 6,824 career yards.
- Saturday’s win was ISU’s first against NAU since 2004. The Lumberjacks had won the previous 10 matchups.
- This is ISU’s first 3-1 start since the 2005 season.
- Saturday’s announced attendance of 9,129 is the largest at Holt Arena since the Bengals’ 30-28 win over Cal Poly in 2014.
- Defensive end Rasheed Williams and wide receiver Tanner Conner were inactive for the second consecutive game. Safety Jayson Miller was also out.