It’s a big weekend for Idaho State football. The Bengals host North Dakota for homecoming, which should bring the biggest crowd of the year to Holt Arena. On the field, Idaho State needs to bounce back from a blowout loss to Montana, and beating North Dakota — which is hanging just outside the FCS top 25 — may be the Bengals’ last chance to get back in the national conversation this year. Here are three keys to victory for Idaho State, plus three players to watch for each team.
North Dakota may have spread things out on offense a little more this year, but make no mistake — the Fighting Hawks are a physical team at heart. Head coach Bubba Schweigert has built the program on winning in the trenches and playing tough defense, and the Fighting Hawks will try to bring both of those things to Pocatello. It’s a hard truth, but Idaho State’s physicality lapsed against Montana last week, especially in the second half as the Grizzlies just kept leaning on the Bengals. Idaho State’s defenders missed more tackles than they have since the Utah game. That can’t be repeated this week.
Please, Someone, Force a Turnover
Somehow, someway, Idaho State is not last in the FCS in takeaways. Maine’s defense, so fearsome a year ago, has forced just one turnover in five games. But ISU isn’t looking much better with just three, and among teams that have played at least five games (which leaves out Ivy League teams that have only played three), only the Black Bears and Samford have forced as few turnovers as Idaho State. Turnovers can be somewhat influenced by luck, but this is something that’s weighing on the ISU defense.
“We go into every game, we want at least three (takeaways),” cornerback Caleb Brown said. “So, we haven’t lived up to that, and we need to. It’s definitely something that we’re focusing on. We need to force turnovers, we need to rip the ball out, we need to get interceptions.”
Stay Strong in the Red Zone
It will be strength against strength when North Dakota gets down close to the goal line. The Fighting Hawks are 12th in the FCS in red zone offense, and Idaho State is in the top 30 in red zone defense. Getting stops in tough situations has been a hallmark of the Idaho State defense thus far, and it’s certainly something the Bengals pride themselves on. They faltered a little bit against Montana, as both Marcus Knight (three times) and Dalton Sneed (twice) punched in short-yardage scores on the ground. Other than in that game, ISU’s defensive line has usually gotten a good push on the goal line and the secondary has looked more comfortable with less ground to cover. Plays in the red zone are high-leverage, and Idaho State will need to keep its strong start to the season there going.
Players to Watch — North Dakota
Nate Ketteringham (Sr. QB) — It’s been a long, strange journey around the Big Sky Conference for Ketteringham, who went to Sacramento State originally out of high school in San Diego. He started 16 games and threw for 24 touchdowns over two years there, but transferred when the offensive coordinator left. Then-Sac State head coach Jody Sears also signed two transfer quarterbacks that season, including the Hornets’ current starter, Kevin Thomson. Out of a job, Ketteringham went north, ending up in Grand Forks. After sitting a year per transfer rules, he started all 11 games for the Fighting Hawks last year, throwing 16 touchdowns. He missed North Dakota’s second and third games this season, but came back and has thrown the ball at least 40 times in the last two games. Last week’s win over ranked UC Davis was his best performance so far, as he threw for 279 yards and three touchdowns.
James Johannesson (Sr. RB) — A two-time Gatorade North Dakota Player of the Year in high school, Johannesson started his college career at Minnesota, although he didn’t see any time in two years there. After transferring back to his home state, he sat on the depth chart behind established star running backs James Santiago and Brady Oliveira, although he played in all 22 games over two years and had a 213-yard, two-touchdown day against Sac State last year. He started the season slowly, not going over 40 yards in any of the Fighting Hawks’ first three games, but had 107 yards against Eastern Washington and 87 last week against UC Davis. A freak athlete in a big frame at 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, he’ll be looking to punish Idaho State’s defenders on Saturday.
Donnell Rodgers (Sr. LB) — It’s been a breakout year for Rodgers, who was quietly competent last year, leading North Dakota with 72 tackles. This year, he’s been something more than that, with 53 tackles already in five games. That mark is good for 12th in the FCS. After a slow day in the season opener, when he presumably didn’t play much in a blowout win over Drake, he’s had at least 10 tackles in each of the next four games, with a high of 16 against defending national champion North Dakota State. He gets into the backfield as well, with at least half a tackle for loss in each of those four games, and created his first turnover of the year last week with a forced fumble against UC Davis. The 6-foot-1, 238-pounder really filled up the stat sheet against the Aggies, with a quarterback hit and three pass breakups to go along with the forced fumble and 13 tackles.
Players to Watch — Idaho State
Matt Struck (Jr. QB) — Idaho State is confident that Struck is fixing the footwork issues that led to a scattershot last three quarters against Montana last week. That game made clear just how much Struck’s mechanics matter, as he was essentially unplayable once he started getting sloppy, completing 8 of his final 24 passes after starting the game 8 of 9. It also showed just how important Struck is to the ISU offense, and how wildly different the Bengals can play given which extreme their quarterback is currently playing at. When he was on, he showed that he could run the Bengals’ run-pass option game with lethal precision, and they moved the ball against maybe the best team in the Big Sky. When he was off, it was a deadly parade of three-and-outs. Because of that, expect Struck to make a fair few appearances in this section between now and the end of the season.
Jacob Angel (Fr. T) — Angel will be making his third start against North Dakota, meaning he’s less an overmatched freshman by this point and more just a crucial part of ISU’s offensive line. That’s good, because this week he’ll be going up against North Dakota’s Mason Bennett. Bennett led the Fighting Hawks with 8 1/2 tackles for loss as a sophomore in 2017 despite not starting and missing a game. He followed that up with nine sacks last year, two away from the single-season record at North Dakota. After picking up 1 1/2 sacks against Drake in the first game of the season, he hasn’t recorded another one, but he’ll be coming after Struck hard Saturday. At 295 pounds, Angel has the size to deal with big rush rushers. Against the 6-foot-4, 258-pound Bennett, he’ll be facing a different challenge, having to deal with speed of the sort he likely hasn’t seen before.
Anthony Ricks and Caleb Brown (Sr. CBs) — Ricks and Brown were both victimized by Montana’s wide receivers last week. North Dakota doesn’t have the same talent on the outside, but with Noah Wanzek, Garett Maag and Travis Toivonen, the Fighting Hawks do have a trio of experienced, dangerous wideouts. All three are over 200 yards already this season. Despite an experienced secondary — Ricks and Brown are both returning senior starters — and an improved pass rush, the Bengals are 88th in the FCS (eighth in the Big Sky) in pass defense. The corners also don’t have an interception between them, nearly halfway through the season. Big plays come and go, but Ricks and Brown need to at least be lockdown and limit North Dakota’s passing game.