In the thick of college basketball and NBA seasons, and in what is hopefully — finally — the tail-end of a pandemic, Weber State football’s unprecedented, surreal spring season will kick off at 4 p.m. Saturday in Pocatello, Idaho.
Idaho State’s last game was at Weber State on Nov. 23, 2019 — a 38-10 defeat to end a 3-9 season, one that coronated WSU, who finished 11-4, as three-time Big Sky champions.
To get a good overall look at the Bengals, I asked ISU football beat writer Andrew Houghton of the Idaho State Journal to offer insight into the Bengals.
1. What have coaches and administrators said about keeping Idaho State in the spring season? What factors did ISU consider to remain and participate?
AH: The coaches, of course, were consistently excited and gung-ho about going forward whenever they were asked about the possibility. I think they realized that, with a young team, the spring season was an important developmental opportunity. As you said, I think wanting to reward the players for hard work in a long offseason was another possible factor.
Having an indoor facility to practice and play in was a big deal, as were the coronavirus regulations — or lack thereof — in Idaho all but guaranteeing that they could put at least some fans in Holt Arena. We’ve seen teams like Montana and Montana State drop out while citing their lack of an indoor facility. We’ve seen teams like Portland State and Sac State drop out largely because of state regulations. ISU didn’t have to deal with either of those two issues, which went a long way towards smoothing the path to participating.
2. From your reporting, quarterback, receiver and running back all seem to be young and inexperienced. Who’s got the angle on the starting QB job and what will ISU’s offense look like?
AH: Wyoming transfer Tyler Vander Waal will be the starter at quarterback. The coaches were in contact with him minutes after he went into the portal two Decembers ago, and he was brought in explicitly to be the guy. Vander Waal looks the part. He’s 6-foot-4 with a big arm, he was a legit FBS recruit coming out of high school despite missing his junior year due to a transfer, and he did have some success in an overall checkered career at Wyoming.
He’ll be unchained a bit in ISU’s field-stretching, RPO-heavy offense after playing multiple years in Wyoming’s run-first, run-last scheme. The Bengals are counting on him for a lot, because there’s not a lot of returning experience around him. Four of the five starters on the offensive line — all but left tackle Jacob Angel, who’s just a sophomore — are new, which could be an issue because Vander Waal, although he isn’t a statue, isn’t the most mobile guy.
At the skill positions, Tanner Conner at wide receiver and Malakai Rango at running back are coming off solid seasons, but there’s no experience behind them and they’re both facing a similar question — namely, can they maintain production now that they’re the top dogs? Conner, a track star, has the tools to be one of the best receivers in the Big Sky and broke out last year, but that was with Mitch Gueller and Mikey Dean drawing a lot of attention from opposing secondaries. Rango showed he could handle a starter’s workload in a few games, but for most of the season, he was the change-of-pace back behind Ty Flanagan.
3. What are the biggest losses, player-wise, the Bengals are trying to make up headed into the season?
AH: Gosh, where to start? Gueller and Dean were first-team all-conference talents at wide receiver. Making things worse is that their projected replacements will miss the start of the season, meaning ISU is starting two freshmen at wideout — Xavier Guillory on the outside opposite Conner and Jalen Henderson in the slot. As previously mentioned, four starting offensive linemen graduated, as did the entire starting secondary. What those units stand to look like is anyone’s guess.
One under-the-radar spot to watch is the defensive line, where experienced starting nose tackle T.J. Togiai opted out of the spring season. Three freshmen — redshirts Jake McGinnis and Will Vea, and true freshman D’Qua Lang — are competing to replace him. Also on the D-line, Garrett Crane opted out of the spring season and Hunter Eborn entered the transfer portal, robbing the Bengals of even more depth there. Of the players who started for ISU last year, only two players on offense and about three on defense — depending on how you count a couple part-time starters — are back in the Bengals’ opening depth chart.
4. What unit or units stand to be the strongest for ISU, and who are the stars of those units?
AH: The linebackers should be solid at worst and have plenty of upside. All four starting ‘backers in ISU’s 3-4 have at least some experience, although the only full-time starter from last year is OLB Oshea Trujillo. Trujillo’s extremely dynamic, can rush the passer, play in coverage and step up against the run. His tackling numbers weren’t off the charts last year — ISU’s scheme naturally flows tackles towards the two inside LBs — but he’s a playmaker.
Kennon Smith and Conner Wills on the inside are good players. Rush linebacker Rasheed Williams, a sixth-year senior, is a massive question — he was a good pass rusher as a freshman, but that was so long ago and he’s been injured almost constantly since. But sources are saying he’s looking incredible in practice. ISU has some good depth at linebacker too, with some intriguing names behind the top four. Every other unit has some pretty big questions, although if Vander Waal and Rango live up to expectations — and I think they will — quarterback and running back will be just fine.
5. ISU is allowing up to 2,800 fans inside Holt Arena for this one. What’s the sense you get about the community’s level of excitement in filling those seats and wanting to be there to experience football for the first time in a while?
AH: It’s a bit of a tough question and I’m interested to see what the crowd looks and sounds like. ISU averaged just over 50% capacity at 12,000-seat Holt Arena in 2019 — 6,129 average attendance over five games — and the two games in the Bengals’ late-season losing streak were barely over 5,000. So 2,800 actually isn’t too far under what ISU was working with for most of 2019, and it’s hard to imagine that enthusiasm will be that high coming off a 3-9 season, although Vander Waal’s arrival has driven some curiosity.
The people with tickets will be mostly players’ families and friends, plus the diehards who are willing to go in for season tickets on a losing team, so I think the fans there will be pretty loud, and in a dome — or whatever you want to call Holt — they’ll be able to make quite a bit of noise.