Hunter Hays Idaho State football

Idaho State quarterback Hunter Hays (Left) tackled by NAU defender Joshua Maignan (26) during the Bengals’ 48-17 loss on Saturday.

Watching Idaho State is like playing with a Jack in the Box. You can spin and spin and feel like everything is dandy, but that clown head is looming. It is not a matter of if but when that spring will pop and a creepy figure will scare the bejeebers out of you.

The Bengals’ football team is the same way. Something alarming always seems imminent.

Idaho State began Saturday’s 48-17 loss to Northern Arizona with its most impressive drive of the season. Behind backup quarterback Hunter Hays, who started in place of the injured Tyler Vander Waal, the Bengals needed only six plays and a little over two minutes to drive 75 yards for a touchdown.

Hays hit fellow freshman Benji Omayebu for a 17-yard touchdown on the game’s opening drive and, for a second, it seemed like things would be different. That the lid wouldn’t open. That Idaho State may win in Flagstaff for the first time since Reagan was in the White House. That a week after coach Rob Phenicie vowed to get the Bengals offense “fixed,” the unit had actually turned a corner.

But just keep spinning. The clown always jumps out.

Following that spectacular opening series, the Bengals ran another 29 plays in the first half, accumulated only 137 yards and scored all of zero points. How can a team look so sharp then so disjointed?

“I thought (offensive coordinator) Mike Ferriter did a great job getting the script ready to go for the first drive. It worked out the way we planned,” Phenicie said postgame. “Then, sometimes, there’s a human element where you can have all kinds of things drawn up on the board that are great and perfect and the human element changes it.”

The translation: Once the Bengals run through their pregame offensive script, all bets are off.

The same thing happened against Nevada. Idaho State looked like Alabama on its first offensive drive. The Bengals produced a methodical 10-play, 75-yard drive that finished in the end zone. It was the only time they crossed the goal line all night.

Now, is that just a product of a young team or the result of injuries? It’s tough to tell.

On Monday, Phenicie said he expected quarterback Tyler Vander Waal to play. Six days later, he didn’t offer much insight into Vander Waal’s health other than “he probably could’ve played but he couldn’t have taken a hit.” As for the health of running backs Raiden Hunter and Malakai Rango, who both unexpectedly didn’t play on Saturday due to injury? “They’ll be back,” Phenicie said. “I can’t address injuries.”

With those answers, it should be no surprise that when asked about the possibility of making a change within his coaching staff, Phenicie declined to comment.

“I won’t address coaching in the newspaper,” he said. “It trickles down from me to the assistant coaches to the players. And I think we have some good leadership from our older players that they want to get things going right starting Monday.”

But if the hope is that Idaho State is one or two tweaks away from being a really good team, Saturday proved that is not the case.

The passing game has obvious problems — Hays completed less than half his passes and threw three picks. The defense allowed nearly 650 yards against NAU and, through four games, has just one turnover.

Heck, the lone bright spot is punter Kevin Ryan, who averages more yards per punt than anyone in the FCS.

So how does Phenicie plan to reverse the Bengals’ fortunes?

“The good thing about football and the bad thing about football is you get a big win and you have to forget about it Monday. Well, you get a difficult loss and you have to forget about it and go back to work on Monday.”

Unfortunately for ISU, things don’t get any easier.

UC Davis, a top-10 team in the nation, plays at Holt next Saturday – a game that could likely drop the Bengals to 0-5 for the first time since ISU’s abysmal 1-10 season in 2009.

Phenicie reiterated, “We have to start on Monday. Go back to work.”

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