POCATELLO – Another week, another oh-so-close shootout loss for Idaho State.
The Bengals played a close game wire to wire Saturday, but fell 48-41 at Liberty of the FBS in Lynchburg, Virginia.
A handful of missed opportunities and failed plays were the difference for ISU (4-3, 3-1 Big Sky Conference), which has lost consecutive games for the first time this season.
“Can’t have turnovers. Three turnovers killed us,” ISU coach Rob Phenicie said in a postgame radio interview. “Dropped passes by the wide receivers killed us. This is on us.”
Idaho State’s offense operated as usual, piling up 631 yards while running backs James Madison and Ty Flanagan sliced Liberty’s defense. Michael Dean hauled in a career-high 210 yards receiving and Tanner Gueller threw four touchdown passes, surpassing Justin Arias for the most in a career ISU history (65).
But Gueller also missed open receivers, threw two interceptions and fumbled three times — one of which was recovered by Liberty. ISU’s defense was sturdy at stages, but gave up 552 yards. Campbell Sheidow missed a second-quarter field goal from 45 yards that would have knotted the score, and Andy Whittier let a late-game onside kick slip away.
It all added up to another could-have, should-have loss for ISU.
Last week, the Bengals were reeling after losing 44-37 in overtime at then-No. 14 UC Davis. A win Saturday would have vanquished that heartbreak and put ISU squarely in the FCS playoff picture.
Now, at 4-3 with four games remaining, each matchup is nearly a must-win to keep that prospect intact.
On the flip side, back-to-back barn-burner losses against quality teams shine a bright light on the back end of ISU’s season.
“It doesn’t matter who we line up against, the kids are confident,” Phenicie said. “They have faith in the process and what we do.”
ISU overcame early deficits of 13-3 and 20-10 to take a 24-20 lead with 10 minutes, 1 second to play in the third quarter. Liberty (4-3) answered with a 14-0 run, and the best ISU could do was trade scores the rest of the way.
Liberty’s largest lead of the game was 48-34, which put the game out of reach at the 1:27 mark of the fourth quarter. The Flames’ game-sealing score was a 47-yard run by Frankie Hickson, one play after ISU nearly recovered an onside kick with the score 41-34.
The Bengals posted a last-gasp TD after that, but Liberty recovered the ensuing onside kick and kneeled out the final half-minute.
ISU’s three turnovers – two interceptions and a lost fumble – are a season-high. The offense had lengthy scoring drives of 86, 75, 74, 73 and 71 yards, but also ended three eight-play possessions with no points.
The defense held Liberty scoreless on five out of six drives during a stretch in the second and third quarters and forced three three-and-outs. But the unit also allowed the Flames to go 8 of 14 on third down.
“You go 1,700 miles and put up 631 yards. Still, you’ve got to score more than the other guy,” Phenicie said.
Liberty quarterback Stephen Calvert completed his first 11 passes and finished 32 of 48 for 362 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden, whose status was iffy all week after missing last week’s game (illness), led Liberty pass-catchers with 10 receptions, 102 yards and two TD grabs.
Gandy-Golden leads Liberty’s receiving corps this season and registered his third 100-yard receiving game of the season Saturday.
Hickson rushed 22 times for 133 yards and three touchdowns. The win was the 250th in Liberty football history.
“You’re going to go out and cover (Gandy-Golden), or you’re going to load the box and try and stop the run,” Phenicie said. “We had a miscommunication on that last touchdown they had. … It was a great play call and got them a touchdown that put them over the top.”
Gueller completed 20 of 44 passes for 397 yards, four TDs and two interceptions. His completion percentage of 45.5 is the lowest in his 38-game college career.
“Tanner even knew he was having an off day,” Phenicie said. “He kept saying, ‘I’ll get better, I’m going to get better. The last couple series, he did. It was nice to see. It was just one of those days where he was high on some of his throws. … Credit to Liberty, great job with their game plan.”
Flanagan rushed for a career-high 136 yards on 12 carries, including a 51-yard touchdown – one of his two runs of 50-plus yards. Madison added 91 yards on 15 rushes to give the Bengals their sixth 200-yard rushing game of the season (234).
Mitch Gueller supplemented Dean’s big day with 125 yards and two scores on nine catches. Austin Campbell also caught a 2-yard touchdown.
Adkin Aguirre, Koby Lowe and Kody Graves had 10 tackles each to lead ISU’s defense. Aguirre picked off Calvert in the end zone, and Caleb Brown added an INT. Cornerback Anthony Ricks had ISU’s lone sack of the game.
Idaho State resumes conference play next week against Montana State at Holt Arena.
“I want everybody to get out and support this team,” Phenicie said. “Let’s fill that thing up again.”
– Tanner Gueller’s four touchdown passes vaulted him into first place in ISU history with 65 career passing touchdowns. Justin Arias held the previous record (64).
– Gueller’s 397 yards passing give him 8,032 yards passing for his career, which ranks second in ISU history. Gueller and Jason Whitmer (9,081) are the only two players in ISU history with more than 8,000 yards passing.
– Flanagan’s rushing touchdown was the 17th of his career, tying him for eighth in ISU history with Billy Shaw.
– Mitch Gueller’s two touchdown catches give him 17 for his career, moving him into 10th place in ISU history.
– Mitch Gueller’s 125 yards receiving move him into seventh in ISU history with 2,265.
Source: The Associated Press