On Thursday August 28th at 5:30 PM MT, the Utah Utes will open their 2014 season against the Idaho State Bengals. Idaho State went 3-9 last year in FCS, 1-7 in the Big Sky Conference (their lone conference win came against 1-11 Northern Colorado). While ISU did not have a great year last year, they showed a lot of improvement according to Kyle Franko of the Idaho State Journal. They went from losing by an average of 33 points in 2012 and winning one game to losing by an average of 11 points and winning three games in 2013. ISU returns 19 total starters from last year's team. Idaho State and Utah had 2 common opponents in 2014: BYU and Weber State. Utah won both games 20-13 and 70-7 respectively where ISU lost both 59-13 and 32-7. It should also be noted that Idaho State has lost 45 straight road games.
ISU runs a version of the Air Raid offense with four wide receivers and the quarterback in the shotgun. According to Franko, the most similar offense in FBS is Washington State. ISU averaged 297 passing yards per game last year and 391 total yards. The offensive headliner is senior quarterback Justin Arias. Arias attempted the most passes in school history last season (574), throwing for 3,547 yards with 24 TD passes and 14 INTs. Arias only completed 56.1% of his passes, but he did add two rushing touchdowns. Against FBS foes Washington and BYU, Arias averaged 126.5 yards passing with 1 TD and 3 INTs. After Arias, the positions with the most talent and depth are running back and offensive line. The offensive line has seven or eight players with starting experience. This group is small and quick and will utilize splits. The area of greatest concern is wideout where the top three players from last season are gone. This is not good for a team that runs four wide receiver sets and may explain why the ISU offense struggled this spring. To deal with pressure from Utah's front seven, expect to see quick passes to the outside, screens, and draws. After Arias, the players to watch are Broc Malcom (WR), a fast, big-play receiver, Josh Cook (TE) from high school powerhouse Mater Dei, Madison Mangum (WR), a BYU transfer, and Aaron Prier (WR), a versatile athlete (former running back).
Idaho State returns eight starters from an improved defense. Idaho State decreased their points per game allowed last season from 54 to 33 and gave up 25 fewer touchdowns. Both starting cornerbacks are back: WSU transfer Brandon Golden and Vai Peko. There is talent in the secondary, but there are several JUCO players coming in that did not play in spring, so the secondary is a bit of a question. The front seven will be the strength of the defense and will be led by the LBs. The two LBs to watch are Mitch Beckstead, the quarterback of the defense, who had 111 tackles, 5.5 TFL, and 3 INTs last season and PJ Gremaud, who had 56 tackles, 3.5 TFL, and 1.5 sacks. Tyler Kuder, who had 5 TFL, 2 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles, leads the defensive line. One area where the defensive line needs to improve is getting more pressure on the opposing QBs.
The bottom line is Idaho State was a bad FCS team last year, meaning Utah should roll in this game. Franko said for ISU to have any chance of beating Utah, ISU has to play really well and come out strong by scoring a touchdown, and Utah needs to play poorly. Despite playing a weak FCS team, Utah cannot take this game for granted however and play flat. In the opening weekend of college football last season, eight FBS teams lost to FCS foes, including No. 25 Oregon State. Franko predicted Utah to win 49-10. We expect the game to be similar with Utah winning 56-7. This game will hopefully be an opportunity for Utah fans to see future stars get into the game in the second half. Games like this can often be boring for fans, but they are important to the budgets of athletic departments of FCS teams.
As a fan, what is your thought about P5 teams playing FCS opponents?