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ISU football: Keys to victory, players to watch for Idaho State and Northern Arizona

September 29, 2018

IDAHO STATE’S KEYS TO VICTORY

1. Contain the quarterback

Mobile quarterbacks have caused issues for ISU this season, and Northern Arizona’s Daniel Bridge-Gadd gives the Bengals another challenge.

Bridge-Gadd is NAU’s second-leading rusher at 105 yards — and his sample size is three of NAU’s four games. Bridge-Gadd took over for injured starter Case Cookus on Sept. 8 after Cookus left the game with an injury. Bridge-Gadd rushed for a career-high 53 yards and one touchdown on 15 carries last week against Southern Utah, adding to a career day of 21-of-31 completions, 295 yards passing, three TDs and no interceptions.

In three games this season, ISU is allowing opposing QBs to average 5.7 yards per carry, excluding yards lost on sacks. Bridge-Gadd gains 4 yards per carry on non-sack rushing plays.

“The team that we played last week (North Dakota) likes to play in a box,” Bengals coach Rob Phenicie said. “This team does a lot like we do and spread it out. … “(Bridge-Gadd) has the ability to take off and go, and there’s a lot more lanes. It’s going to be tough to contain him.”

2. Run, run, run

ISU’s offense is at its best when series of successful runs set up downfield passes.

North Dakota saw it last week, when Ty Flanagan and James Madison combined to gallop for 225 yards. The production allowed quarterback Tanner Gueller to pass for a season-high 293 yards, with a season-best 18.3 yards per completion.

While NAU’s pass defense holds opponents to 204.2 yards per game and ties for the FCS lead with nine interceptions, the Lumberjacks’ run defense gets gashed for 216.2 yards per game and 5.3 yards per rush, both 10th in the 13-team Big Sky Conference.

The ’Jacks have ceded two 100-yard rushing efforts this season, and both were closer to 200 yards — Eastern Washington’s Sam McPherson gained 161 yards, and Missouri State’s Jason Randall ran for 181 yards.

3. Be ready to throw

Phenicie said Monday he expects NAU to stack the box against the Bengals’ ball carriers, forcing ISU into passing situations.

“They’re going to play us with a lot of man-to-man,” Phenicie said. “They’re going to come up and press us, try to disrupt our routes and load the box on us and probably force us to throw.”

NAU is barely allowing opposing QBs to complete 50 percent of their passes (51.1), and has more interceptions (nine) and TD passes allowed (six). The only quarterback who has gone INT-free against NAU this season is Eastern Washington’s Gage Gubrud. The other five have all been picked at least once.

“Their corners are in great position to make interceptions,” Phenicie said. “They force you into bad throws. … Our margin of error is really small when throwing the ball. We’ve got to be on target, we’ve got to be on task and we’ve got to be accurate, and the receivers have to be in the right spot, because they are very opportunistic.”

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Idaho State

WR Mitch Gueller

Gueller is second on the Bengals in receptions, but his big-play propensity vaults him near the top of the FCS in yards per catch.

Gueller is third in the Big Sky Conference and ninth in the FCS with 26.5 yards per catch. In his ISU career of two-plus seasons, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior has hauled in 85 receptions, and 28 of them have gained 20 yards or more, including eight for at least 50 yards.

Gueller already has three receptions of 50-plus yards this season, including his go-ahead 67-yard touchdown last week against North Dakota. His size and hands will likely be leaned on against Northern Arizona’s ball-hawking defense, which is tied for the FCS lead with nine interceptions this season.

LB Kody Graves

Graves missed ISU’s season-opening game this season, but still leads the team in tackles with 25.

The 6-foot-1, 225-pound redshirt junior set a career high with 14 tackles against North Dakota and is one of five Bengals with an interception this season.

Graves joins cornerback Caleb Brown as one of two Bengals with a sack and an interception in 2018. Graves does not qualify for the Big Sky and FCS leaderboards, which only rank players who have appeared in 75 percent of their team’s games. But his 12.5 tackles per game would rank second in the league and fourth in the FCS among qualified players.

CBs Anthony Ricks/Caleb Brown/Koby Lowe

ISU’s three-man cornerback rotation has a tall task in defending NAU’s pass-dependent offense.

The Lumberjacks have gained 1,059 of their 1,651 offensive yards via the pass this season (64 percent), have scored three times as many touchdowns through the air as on the ground (nine to three) and have achieved 48 of 86 first downs by passing.

ISU has successfully defended the pass so far this season, ranking second in the Big Sky with 200 yards passing allowed per game, and is fourth in the conference in pass defense efficiency. But the Bengals have also faced the second-fewest number of passes in the league (102), and ISU has yet to face an offense as pass-dependent as NAU.

Brown, Ricks and Lowe each have one turnover this season, with Brown and Lowe nabbing one interception apiece and Ricks recovering a fumble.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Northern Arizona

WR Emmanuel Butler

One of the best receivers in NAU history, Butler is circled by every opponent.

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound redshirt senior is back after missing most of last season with a shoulder injury. He was a first-team FCS All-American in 2015 and recently moved into first place on NAU’s all-time list for touchdown receptions (29).

Butler is also second in NAU history with 2,812 career yards receiving and is tied for fifth with 166 career receptions.

Butler caught four passes for 88 yards and two touchdowns in his only game against ISU in 2016.

QB Daniel Bridge-Gadd

Bridge-Gadd was thrust into NAU’s quarterback role when veteran starter Case Cookus was injured during the second game of the season, a 31-26 home loss to Eastern Washington.

Bridge-Gadd spent the 2016 and 2017 seasons at Washington before returning to his home state to play for NAU. Bridge-Gadd was Arizona’s 2015 Gatorade Football Player of the Year and earned honorable mention Parade All-America honors following his senior season.

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound redshirt sophomore gives NAU’s offense an added element. Bridge-Gadd is second on the team with 105 yards rushing, and has registered three carries fewer than the Lumberjacks’ lead tailback, Joe Logan.

Bridge-Gadd has also passed for 783 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions while completing 61.8 percent of his passes.

WR Brandon Porter

While Butler is NAU’s big-play threat, Porter leads the team with 19 catches and expands his role to the backfield.

Bengals coach Rob Phenicie said Monday that Porter is used as NAU’s quarterback in wildcat formations. The 5-foot-10, 165-pound redshirt freshman averages 8.1 yards per carry (seven rushes for 57 yards), and has returned one kickoff this season — a 47-yarder last week against Southern Utah.

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