Time to jump on the ISU bandwagon — the Bengals are real

October 10, 2018

POCATELLO – Idaho State football is on a mission not frequently ventured, proving all of us wrong every step of the way. No more last-place finishes and laughable blowouts – these Bengals are gunning for trophies.

At the midway point of their quest, the Bengals are smoothly sailing into uncharted waters. Rough sea lies ahead, but there’s no need to jump ship. These Bengals sure won’t.

After five games of an 11-game season, Idaho State is 3-0 in Big Sky Conference play – 4-1 overall – the program’s best start since their 1981 national title campaign. Each game, a checkpoint; every win, a drought-snapper: the Bengals play their biggest game of the season week after week as they gather believers.

This week is no different. ISU’s soaring after thumping the Idaho Vandals, ending a 23-year rivalry dry spell. The reward? A date at 14th-ranked UC Davis and its renowned offensive attack. It’s the biggest test yet for these Bengals – but win or lose, the mission continues.

While ISU isn’t accustomed to winning, Rob Phenicie is. The Bengals’ head coach did plenty of it at Montana, where one win meant little – one loss sparked outrage. He brought that pedigree to Pocatello and has imparted his wisdom on a team that had talent but needed direction.

This season has been in the making, Phenicie said, since the day he was hired – March 30, 2017 – and kicked into high gear the day after last season ended. His staff is in place, his culture is curated and his winning mentality is making its mark.

“We never waver in confidence,” quarterback Tanner Gueller said. “That’s the thing about this group.”

It’s all roses for ISU at the moment. The Idaho win vanquished ghosts of rivalry past and disrupted the pecking order of Gem State football. Gueller earned national praise for his record-setting performance, which got ISU its 15 seconds on ESPN. ISU is on the cusp of top-25 rankings in multiple polls and will surely break through win a win later this week.

The Bengals are relevant, and not just in Poky.

“Every week now, we’re not the little Idaho State,” Phenicie said after Saturday’s win. “We’re a known commodity within the conference, and we’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”

Saturday’s near-sellout crowd was refreshing, a deserved atmosphere for this Bengals squad. But there’s a real chance things aren’t so rosy in two weeks, when they make their Holt Arena return.

First up are the Aggies, with their All-American wideout, their all-conference quarterback and a veteran head coach who’s led a Power 5 program. Next is FBS Liberty, which is two time zones away, has more money, more scholarships and better facilities than Idaho State.

Worst-case scenario: the Bengals lose both. It’d be easy to forecast the hot start as fraudulent then. Instead, I’ll challenge you this: no matter these next two outcomes, ISU will compete for an FCS playoff berth and – even better – a Big Sky Conference title.

So don’t abandon these Bengals if they are 4-3. Come mid-November, a foreseeable record is 7-3, with a win against Weber a season-extender.

There haven’t been many seasons like this one, not since ’14, at least. Enjoy the excitement. It’s just getting started.

“There’s a tremendous amount of focus out of this bunch that I haven’t seen,” Phenicie said. “There’s a goal or a vision on something bigger, and that’s what I think is driving this team.”

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