The Mountain West is the Group of 5’s king of the hill for the 2018 season. The final Coaches Poll was released several hours after the AP Poll yesterday; Boise State stayed put in that one, too, at No. 24. And like the AP list, there were three Mountain West teams ranked—Utah State was up two to No. 21, and Fresno State jumped three spots to No. 18. The American conference, of course, had UCF bubbling under the top 10. The only other AAC team in the rankings was Cincinnati, which flip-flops with Boise State at No. 23 and 24 in the polls. And hey—the Pac-12 also had only two teams in the final rankings.
Is it a sign for 2019? Well, there won’t be three Mountain West schools in the preseason polls this summer. There might not even be one. The conference is absent from the way-too-early top 25 lists that have trickled out so far (except USA Today, where the Broncos are No. 24). But if there is one MW team ranked in August, the odds-on favorite would be Utah State. Boise State loses Brett Rypien and Alexander Mattison. Fresno State loses Marcus McMaryion and KeeSean Johnson. USU returns quarterback Jordan Love and running backs Darwin Thompson and Gerold Bright, who combined for more than 2,000 yards rushing this past season. That’s where analysts will begin.
VANDER ESCH FAMILY PLAYS HOCKEY, TOO
The Idaho Steelheads open a three-game interdivisional series against the Toledo Walleye tonight in CenturyLink Arena. It’s always good to see somebody new come to Boise. The cross-country matchup that really would be fun right now would be one against the Greenville Swamp Rabbits. Why? There’s a forward on the Greenville roster named Dylan Vander Esch. Yes, he is Leighton’s cousin. Dylan, a 6-1, 195-pound forward, has five goals and an assist in 18 games for the Swamp Rabbits this season. And there is a family resemblance. (Leighton’s dad, Darwin, and Dylan’s dad, Doug, are brothers.)
Says Leighton’s mom Sandy, “They only saw each other every two to three years growing up since they lived in different states (Dylan’s family lived in San Jose). We’d have Vander Esch family reunions about every three years and they’d get to see each other. It was always very competitive between all the cousins at the reunions when they’d play basketball, or any other game! Vander Esch’s are well known for that! Leighton and Dylan have always kept in touch through text or phone, though.” Dylan has a younger brother, Caleb Vander Esch, who’s a wide receiver at South Dakota. Caleb had 25 catches this past season for 212 yards and a touchdown.
There are some superlatives for the Steelheads going into tonight’s game. Forward Reid Petryk has been named ECHL Player of the Week. Petryk scored four goals—including two game-winning tallies—and added three assists in three games last week. And goalie Tomas Sholl is the lone Steelie named to the ECHL All-Star Game on January 21 in, coincidentally, Toledo. Sholl is 12-4-0 this season with two shutouts and a .937 save percentage, tops in the league. He’s second in the ECHL in goals-against average at 1.98.
KOETTER’S COMFORT ZONE
It’s been a long time since Dirk Koetter dealt with recruiting and booster luncheons and such. And Koetter said on Idaho SportsTalk last week that he’d continue coaching in the NFL or not at all after being fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. NFL it is, as Koetter returns to the Atlanta Falcons as offensive coordinator. The main beneficiary is Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who was as comfortable as at any time in his career during Koetter’s previous O.C. stint with the team from 2012-14 and apparently lobbied for his return. This will be the 13th NFL season for Koetter, who was head coach at Boise State from 1998-2000 before leading Arizona State from 2001-06.
LENO’S 2018 ROLLERCOASTER
Charles Leno Jr.’s fifth NFL season is over after the weird “double-doink” finish in Chicago’s 16-15 loss to Philadelphia Sunday. The former Boise State star has started every game for the Bears the past three seasons, but that was his first playoff game. Leno had two big moments this season as he has toiled in the natural anonymity of an NFL offensive lineman. One was the on-field proposal to his girlfriend after a win over the Packers 3½ weeks ago. The other saw Leno split out as a receiver twice during the Bears’ opening touchdown drive—also against Green Bay—on the first edition of Sunday Night Football this fall.
There was no fun and frivolity on Sunday as Leno and the Bears watched their Super Bowl hopes hit the ground on the Cody Parkey field goal attempt that hit both the left upright and the crossbar at the end of the game against the Eagles. Leno, who was pictured consoling Parkey on the field after the game, passionately defended him as nasty vitriol directed at the kicker was building on social media. Leno was asked what he would say to those fans. “What would my message be? **** you,” Leno said. “You’re not in our position. You don’t know how hard this **** is.” It was small consolation for Parkey that the kick was officially changed from a “miss” to a “block.”
THE WILD MOUNTAIN WEST
While Boise State is away (enjoying its midweek bye and modest two-game winning streak), the other 10 Mountain West teams are at play. San Jose State warms up for its game against the Broncos Saturday with a matchup tonight at…Nevada? This is not a good time to be facing the Wolf Pack, who’s smokin’ mad after being embarrassed in a 27-point drubbing at New Mexico four days ago. The Pack is favored by a staggering 29 points. Tonight’s other game should be good: Fresno State at Utah State. Last night in the MW, San Diego State routed Wyoming 84-54, and Colorado State routed Air Force 87-64. As for the team that routed Nevada, the Lobos? They lost 80-69 in The Pit to UNLV. The Rebels are 3-0 in conference.
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January 9, 1977: The Oakland Raiders overwhelm the Minnesota Vikings, 32-14, in Super Bowl XI, played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. For the Vikings, it was their fourth consecutive Super Bowl loss. For the Raiders, it was their first Super Bowl victory and the crowning moment of John Madden’s coaching career. Oakland wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff was the MVP, but the lasting memory of the game was Willie Brown’s 75-yard touchdown return of a Fran Tarkenton interception. In slo-mo.
(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 93.1 FM KTIK. He also served as color commentator on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.)