BOZEMAN — When Idaho State hosted Montana in an important Big Sky Conference tilt on Oct. 7, Ty Gregorak was receiving regular updates from Jennifer Phenicie, the wife of ISU coach Rob Phenicie.
Gregorak and Rob Phenicie have a long history: They were colleagues for seven seasons at UM serving under Bobby Hauck, Gregorak as linebackers coach and Phenicie as offensive coordinator. They helped lead the Griz to three FCS national title game appearances.
With Phenicie’s wife providing dispatches to Gregorak, the Grizzlies rallied to beat the Bengals 39-31. It was a game that included some rather acerbic talk by Phenicie in the lead-up — and an admonition by Montana coach Bob Stitt in the aftermath.
Now it’s the Bobcats turn to face the Bengals. ISU is 4-4 overall and 2-3 in the league, including a win over FBS Nevada.
It has quickly become more competitive in Phenicie’s first season at the helm, and gave the Griz a run for their money.
“They played Montana extremely well. It was kind of one of those coulda, shoulda, woulda games for them, I’m sure, in some respects,” MSU coach Jeff Choate said this week.
Choate added sarcastically, “There was obviously a lot of peace and love in that game between the Bengals and the Grizzlies. That was nice to see.”
It should be more harmonious between MSU and Idaho State this week. Gregorak’s relationship with Phenicie, who received a three-year contract extension from Idaho State this week, is one obvious connection between the teams, but it doesn’t end there.
Gregorak helped recruit Bengals offensive coordinator Matt Troxel to Montana out of Lake City High School in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where Troxel played for his father, Van, a former Griz quarterback in his own right.
Also, Idaho State linebackers coach Roger Cooper, who doubles as the team’s associate head coach, was a star linebacker for the Bobcats. He was named the Big Sky’s defensive player of the year in 2004.
Even further down the line, Choate has a connection with ISU running backs/special teams coach David Fiefia. Choate was on the coaching staff at Utah State when Fiefia was a running back there in the early 2000s.
“I worked with Phen a long time and recruited (Troxel) out of Lake City, and (Cooper’s) become a buddy. The job they’ve done is pretty impressive,” Gregorak said.
“I talk to Phen regularly. We go way back, since 2003. We became very close at the last stop (Montana). I’m impressed with the job they’ve done. They’ve done a really nice job and I’m happy for them.
“That relationship that goes back to ’03, we won’t be real friendly on Saturday but I’m sure before and after the game we’ll be just fine. For 60 minutes, though, it is what it is.”
Phenicie is an offense-oriented coach, and the Bengals are propped up by the standout play of 6-foot-3, 235-pound quarterback Tanner Gueller, who has thrown for 2,275 yards and 20 touchdowns with just five interceptions.
Additionally, running back James Madison has rushed for 726 yards, second-most in the league behind Bobcats quarterback Chris Murray.
The Bengals are coming off a 691-yard, 59-point outburst in a victory over Portland State last week. Gueller threw a 97-yard touchdown pass to his brother, Mitch, one of ISU’s true big-play threats.
Montana State’s defense, under Gregorak’s direction, has proven it can scheme up an effective plan regardless of the opponent. ISU, with Phenicie’s offensive cunning, will be another test.
“Rob is a very good offensive coach. He’s adapted and done different things over the years to his personnel, and I think between he and (Troxel) they do a really good job,” Gregorak said. “They’ve got some dudes that are legit playmakers. It will be a challenge.
“I think the quarterback is a real dude. He can make all the throws. He’s a big dude; he’s bigger than a lot of our dudes on defense. He’s a real threat. He manages the game real well. I’ve just been impressed.”