On the Monday morning after Idaho Falls opened this new season with a blowout win, Skyler Olsen made his way to his first-hour classroom, expecting just that — another class, another school day, another day in his final year of high school. Except when the team’s starting quarterback entered the room, his classmates erupted in applause. Olsen felt conflicted.
“It was fun, but I felt a little embarrassed,” Olsen said. “It was like, ‘Oh, we finally won.’”
Under better circumstances, nobody on the team would enter to applause, not after a season-opening victory. But this was hardly that.
Idaho Falls had just won its first game in nearly two calendar years.
The Tigers had only topped lowly Hillcrest, 41-7, but it was their first win since October 2019. Idaho Falls dropped the final two games of that season, plus all nine of the next season’s, languishing through a winless campaign that left everyone involved — players, coaches, fans — wondering when rain might fall on this hopeless drought.
To be sure, Idaho Falls hung with a few teams. The Tigers played with Rigby, at least for the first stanza. They only fell to Madison by four. In a loss to Century, they pitched a shutout in the second half. But what made the season so dejecting for Idaho Falls were the emotions, the lack of confidence. The clock might as well have struck zeroes as soon as the Tigers fell behind. “We just thought it was over,” running back Kyan Jesperson said.
Which is what makes Idaho Falls’ 5-0 start to this season so fascinating. It might be the most interesting story in the state, at least in terms of team accomplishments: The Tigers have made a stunning turnaround, winning more games this season than in their previous two combined. In the latest media poll, Idaho Falls checked in at No. 5 in Class 5A, the program’s first ranking in eight years.
The Tigers have earned every vote. To wit, they’ve registered the following wins: 41-7 over Hillcrest, 34-33 over Blackfoot, 21-12 over Thunder Ridge, 51-14 over Century, 32-20 over Pocatello. That’s an average win margin of plus-19, which doesn’t leave much room for a fluke. In other words: This is for real. Olsen hasn't received much more applause, at least not for the same reason.
“Considering the differences between last season to this season, it’s huge,” senior defensive tackle Grayson Thomas said. “The team is way closer now, and we’re playing way better, smarter football. Everything’s been better. The environment’s been better all around. Coaches have been better. Everything’s improved this year.”
Idaho Falls has authored this reversal by making a bevy of changes — on the roster, on the coaching staff, on the practice field, in their heads. Most importantly, the Tigers have a 25-man senior class, which includes many of their key pieces: Olsen, Jesperson, Thomas, receivers Hunter Miller and Beau Anderson, safety Daeson Hunter and defensive end Ben Moore. Over the offseason, they got stronger, smarter, more confident. Leaders emerged. In a 7-on-7 game against Rigby, Idaho Falls fell on the last play, but around then is when the Tigers started to realize they could make serious changes.
Over the offseason, Idaho Falls also shuffled its coaching staff, which now includes new faces like defensive backs coach Tyler Tuttle, running backs coach Jason Bird and defensive coordinator Jeremy Westwood. The Tigers all like their new coaches — “They trust us with everything we do,” Olsen said — but they’ve also benefited the program by beefing up the coaching staff from six people to nine.
That allows head coach Marty Duffin to spread out his thinking during games. Last season, he acted as the team’s defensive coordinator. Now, he assists “as needed” on defense. He pays more attention to the offense, spotting formations and making calls accordingly.
“It’s more manageable,” Duffin said.
Duffin and his coaches have also made changes to practice, where they’ve always split things up into periods. Thing is, they’re shorter this season. The tempo is faster. More players get involved. “I think that’s helped a ton,” Duffin said.
Some of the responsibility fell to the players themselves, though. So many of them are seniors, which means they were around last year. So over the spring and summer, they worked with tunnel vision: Not last year. Not again.
“Just feeling that. Feeling a loss every single week,” Jesperson said, explaining what drove him and the seniors. “They definitely didn’t want to feel that again. They didn’t want to be the laughingstock anymore.”
So in some ways, the Tigers have given themselves confidence they’ve never had before, as have lots of things: Offseason work, where they built muscle and endurance. Practices, where they see what they’re capable of. And games, where deficits no longer bother them and they feel comfortable running and throwing the ball.
“We’re just ready to answer back. Last year, we weren’t,” Jesperson said. “We were just ready to be done.”
“Once we got behind, our confidence was gone. It was like, ‘We’re just going to lose again,’” Duffin added. “Whereas this team definitely is going to fight it. We’re just going to fight through and hopefully come out on top.”
Ask 10 Tigers when they realized they could do this and you’ll get 10 different answers. To Hunter, it was on his team’s first defensive series of the season, when they picked off a pass against Hillcrest. Moore says he felt it during offseason workouts. Olsen thinks back to the game-winning drive he led against Blackfoot, when Idaho Falls leapt ahead early, fell behind later and got the ball back with about two minutes left, trailing by five.
The Tigers reached the Broncos’ 30-yard line with about 30 seconds to go. That’s when Olsen threw a game-winning strike, good for a lead the defense never relinquished.
“I think that’s something all the boys worked for in the offseason,” Olsen said. “I think that showed us who we are.”
“I don’t think the kids ever felt like they’d lose that,” Duffin said.
The game bears revisiting because it represents one of the few close games Idaho Falls has played to this point. More often, the Tigers are winning by multiple scores, their offense lighting it up and their defense keeping the door shut. Duffin likes to explain that by pointing to the personal improvements his guys made over the offseason, citing players like Miller, defensive end Brendan Rasmussen, nose guard Landon Gneiting, tight end James Longua.
That’s allowed Idaho Falls to do what it rarely has before: Play a complete game, offense, defense, special teams.
“It’s a lot of fun to watch. It’s cool to see the kids buying in,” Duffin said. “They’re having fun. Their pride, school pride, is changing. It’s cool to see your general student population and the administrators at the school, they’ve been really upbeat. They’re real happy with what we’ve done, and they’ve given us great support.”
For the Tigers, though, keeping things rolling this Friday represents their tallest task yet. That’s because Idaho Falls gets a road test against unbeaten Rigby, Class 5A’s No. 1 team. Outside of a two-score win over Skyline, the Trojans have steamrolled their way through the season, with Weber State commit Tiger Adolpho at the controls on offense.
Plus, Idaho Falls hasn’t beaten Rigby since 2013, the last year the Tigers found themselves ranked. They say they don’t pay much attention to numbers like that.
Opponents like the Trojans, though?
That’s one win Idaho Falls wouldn’t mind getting applause for.
“This is a game we’ve had circled on our calendar for awhile. This is a game we really want to win,” Thomas said. “We think it’s a huge statement game for I.F. to win this one. Obviously they’ve been a dominant program the last little while and we’ve kind of gone downhill, but I think this year is really the year we can come back and make a statement.”