Weber State football (8-3, 6-1 Big Sky) is at home this week to finish the regular season. The Wildcats host Idaho State (3-8, 2-5) with a chance to clinch a share of their third straight Big Sky Conference championship.
1. Idaho State started Big Sky play 2-1 after hammering North Dakota, and also battled Northern Iowa on the road. Since then, what's happened? What went south for the Bengals?
Houghton: Well, the most obvious thing that happened is that Matt Struck, who was putting up monster stats and garnering some slight buzz as one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Sky, started throwing the ball directly to opposing defensive backs with nothing but green grass in front of them. Struck started the season with 15 touchdowns and one pick in his first five games. Since then? Five touchdowns and 11 picks in five games, with five of those interceptions returned for touchdowns, plus two more lost fumbles, one of which was also returned for a touchdown.
Those aren’t just turnovers, they’re back-breaking, game-changing turnovers, and it’s been hard for ISU to overcome them. I also think that this just isn’t a team that plays well on the road, so suffering two road losses at Idaho and Southern Utah after the North Dakota game wasn’t completely out of left field. Those two losses essentially meant that the Bengals had nothing to play for the rest of the season, and I think that’s seeped into their play as well.
2. On the flip side, what are things that ISU is still doing well despite the results?
Houghton: Head coach Rob Phenicie has been adamant that ISU has kept playing hard through this five-game losing streak. If you believe that — and from what I’ve seen, it’s mostly true — that’s certainly a positive.
In terms of Xs and Os, the run game has continued to produce even as Struck has struggled. The Bengals have gone over 100 yards in each of their last four games, including putting 302 on Northern Colorado. That’s continued even with Ty Flanagan out, as freshman Malakai Rango went for 142 last week at BYU. That’s a testament to the offensive line, as well as to Rango’s talent — the kid looks like he’ll be a stud.
3. ISU's offense seemed to return a lot of its talent from last year, minus the quarterback. Has QB play been the crux of any offensive struggles? ISU holds league worsts in completion percentage (51%) and interceptions thrown (18).
Houghton: Yep, I’d say that’s accurate. Early in the year, Struck was inconsistent — his completion percentage has been below-average all season — but capable of making some great throws, and ISU really ran up the numbers on Portland State and North Dakota with him tossing the ball all around the field.
Starting with the Idaho game, though, he’s stayed inconsistent but replaced the good throws with some jaw-droppingly bad interceptions (and some that haven’t really been his fault, to be fair), showing a tendency to stare down his receivers. Even when he’s not throwing picks, he’s been missing throws. That, obviously, makes it tough to get the offense on track, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s had second-order effects beyond that, as well.
It’s demoralizing for me, in the press box, to watch opposing defensive backs trot into the end zone every game. I can’t imagine what it’s like for the guys on the sideline.
4. Who are defensive standouts for the Bengals?
Houghton: Senior middle linebacker Kody Graves is back after getting third-team all-Big Sky honors last year. To me, Graves is a guy that goes under the radar in the conference a little bit. His stats aren’t quite top-tier, his physique isn’t top-tier, his highlights aren’t top-tier. But he’s just a solid linebacker, very smart, probably the best tackler on the team. He’s got 90 tackles this year, ninth in the conference, and just grabbed his second interception last week against BYU.
Safety Adkin Aguirre hasn’t been quite the all-field dynamo that he was last year, but he had a career-high 16 tackles, 15 solo, last week against BYU to get to 84 on the year. Like Graves, he’s a little undersized, but that just makes him more fun to watch. He loves to hit, and he’s the easiest player to identify on ISU’s defense, both because he flies around the field like a demon and because he does it with long, black hair flowing out of the back of his helmet.
Senior linebacker Luke Holloway has overcome some injuries in his career. He’s locked down the rush linebacker spot this year and had a very solid season, with 65 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, tied for fifth in the conference.
5. Help me take the temperature of the program in Pocatello: the Bengals were somewhat in the playoff mix last season but the schedule is always stacked against them. Now with this season's drop-off, where does the program stand, internally and externally?
Houghton: Tough to tell. One thing to keep in mind is that, for eight out of the nine years before Rob Phenicie was promoted to head coach, two Big Sky wins would be a success. It sounds crazy, but that’s the facts — between 2008 and 2016, the Bengals won zero or one Big Sky games in eight out of nine years.
Now, it’s tough to have that perspective in the middle of a losing streak as bad as this one, and this year is, of course, a disappointment — a failure, even. But it’s a failure mainly because expectations were higher than usual after last year (also because of the way it’s happened — having your QB throw four total pick-sixes to three of the worst teams in the conference is both an absolutely wild narrative and a total gut punch).
All that said, I still think this program is on an upswing, even if that’s impossible to tell from their results this year. New athletic director Pauline Thiros understands how important a successful football program is, and she’s taking steps in that direction, including trying to fix that brutal schedule. And — again, relative to ISU’s history — taking two steps forward in Phenicie’s first two years, even if they’ve given at least one of those steps back this year, probably counts as progress.