If nothing else, Saturday's crowd proved one thing...Vandal fans have been aching for a western regional conference affiliation for four years. Why? Compare last year's first two home games to this year's. Last year, while playing their final season in the Sun Belt Conference, attendance dropped dramatically after the first home game. Just like what happened this year, the Vandals last year at this time came out flat against Louisiana-Monroe and lost a painful game in front of solid crowd of about 14,000 fans. The following week, attendance dropped sharply to under 10,000 as the Vandals took on Louisiana-Lafayette.
Not so this year.
Last week Idaho stumbled in their home debut against Hawaii in front of an electric crowd of 15,000+ and a national television audience. Despite the loss, unlike last year Vandal fan support did not dip sharply the following week as Idaho took on Utah State to earn their first Western Athletic Conference victory in a Homecoming matchup of old foes. A packed house is expected in two weeks when Idaho welcomes a Fresno State team to town that started the season ranked in the Top 25, lost at Oregon by 3 points, and is poised to make a run at the WAC crown. This is what western conference affiliations are all about (name recognition, rivalries with history, etc), and is a welcome sight for Vandal fans who stuck by the program to see this day happen.
VANDAL SICK BAY:
Expected back this week... The offensive line should get a depth boost this week against an always tough Nevada team as Nate VanderPol (knee) and Desmond Clark (family emergency) make their way back to the Vandal depth chart. Nate has been held out since the second half of the Washington game and looks to get some reps against the Wolf Pack. Clark missed the Utah State game and should be available for the battle in Reno. The receiving corps should also get a nice boost with the return of junior slot receiver Daniel Smith, Idaho's #1 receiver the first 4 weeks of the season who missed the USU game after suffering a second half concussion against Hawaii the week before. It is anticipated Smith will get clearance this week to play Saturday, which should give Idaho an impressive receiving attack given the development of the rest of the unit the last two weeks.
Needing a little more time... Starting left guard Jade Tadvick, who suffered an emergency appendectomy the week of the Hawaii game, will not be available until possibly the Fresno State game in two weeks. Also expected back at that time will be senior backup running back Antwaun Sherman who suffered a high ankle sprain in the Hawaii game.
PUTTING THE SQUEEZE ON... Remember when Idaho's 31st Head Football Coach Nick Holt was hired about 2 years ago? One of the key reasons given for hiring the man was the need to get Idaho's defense back to respectability. Well, here's a stat to indicate things may be going in the right direction. In Idaho's first 5 games, each week the number of points allowed has either decreased or stayed the same. In order, the Vandals have given up 38 (WSU), 34 (UNLV), 34 (UW), 24 (Hawaii), and 13 (Utah State). So far this year, they've given up an average of 28.7 points per game. Through the first 5 games last season, Idaho was giving up a whopping 43.4 points per game (they finished the year giving up 39.4 points per game). Through the first 5 games, Idaho has the #8 tackler in the nation (Cole Snyder), they've picked off 7 passes (D.J. Dykes has 2), and have 10 sacks, and are ranked 48th in the nation with an average of 6.80 tackles for loss per game (34 tackles for loss on the year). For those that have followed Idaho football in the recent past, this is a palpable improvement...especially considering they're starting sophomores on the defensive line (Siua Musika and Benjamin Alexander), linebacker (Josh Bousman and David Vobora), and at safety (D.J. Dykes), with generous substitutions by freshmen throughout.
COMING UP BIG TIME.... Senior linebacker Mike Anderson, one of the defensive leaders who has been relatively quiet stat-wise in the Holt era, pounded the final nail in the Utah State coffin Saturday afternoon when he picked off Aggie quarterback Leon Jackson with less than a minute left in the game and USU driving in Idaho territory (Idaho was up 20-13 at the time). The clock had just wound down to under 2 minutes left in the game, and the Aggies had first and ten from the Idaho 34 yard line. Jackson dropped back to pass, threw to the left side of the field where Anderson jumped in front of the receiver to make the pick, and came down with an ocean of green in front of him. The former Idaho track star, now a burly 6-3, 231 pounds, took off for the endzone with just one player to beat...Jackson himself. The dual-threat QB had rushed for 87 yards in the game, and had a pursuit angle on Anderson as the players neared the USU goal line. But Mike was able to find just enough gas in the tank to blow past a diving Jackson at the ten yard line, and sailed into the endzone to a thunder of cheers from the Vandal faithful. For his efforts Mike earned Western Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Week honors, the second time this season a Vandal had earned the coveted POW honors this season.
ACTUALLY, HATS OFF TO ALL THE RECEIVERS... With starter Daniel Smith out for the USU game, the rest of the Vandal receiving corps would be called upon to step up to the challenge. The group responded, led by Wendell Octave's 78 yards on 5 clutch receptions, Matt Askew's 4 receptions for 39 yards (including 27 yards on 3 key receptions on Idaho's last scoring drive of the game), and redshirt freshman Lee Smith's 2 receptions for 37 yards. Throw in running backs Rolly Lumbala (3 catches for 21 yards and TD) and Jason Brown (one reception for 13 yards) and the receivers delivered.
DOUBLE-DUTY DOUBLE-TAKE... All last season, Idaho kicker Mike Barrow wore every single kicking hat for the Vandals. Field goals. Kick-offs. PATs. Punts. He did it all as a sophomore in Coach Holt's first year at Idaho. This year, it would be different. The former St. Bonaventure (CA) star could focus his full attention on kicking (a highly touted kicker out of High School, Mike was named to the All-West Coast Team by PrepStar, had 70% of his kick-offs land in the endzone, and he holds the Ventura County record for career points - 181 total). That all came to a screeching halt this week however, as freshman punter T.J. Conley sustained a season-ending leg injury during practice. How did Mike respond? By having one of the best games of his entire career. He hit two clutch field goals for the Vandals, including a personal best 46 yarder to give Idaho a 17-13 lead in the fourth quarter. He then connected later in the fourth to give the Vandals a 20-13 lead with just over 2 minutes left in the game. He averaged an impressive 47.5 yards per punt on both of his boots of the night, pinning the Aggies deep in their end of the field both times. Of his 6 kickoffs, three sailed out of the endzone (including his kickoff after a 5 yard Idaho penalty), and none of the other 3 was returned for more than 20 yards. He came through big for Idaho this weekend, and earned a nomination for Western Athletic Conference Special Teams Player of the Week (the honor went instead to Boise State's Orlando Scandrick).
COOL UNDER PRESSURE... Junior quarterback Steve Wichman continues to impress. Operating behind an offensive line that was able to give him a few seconds to survey the defense, Steve picked the Aggies apart in the first half going a perfect 12 of 12 and finishing with 20 completions in 25 attempts with 1 TD and 1 INT for 238 yards. He connected with six different receivers, built a 14-0 first half lead, and led Idaho on scoring drives of 7 minutes, 6 minutes, and 4 minutes. The effort earned him a nomination as the Western Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Week (Fresno State running back Bryson Sumlin won the honor). Steve was named the Offensive POW for his effort earlier this season against UNLV.
Eck, a former center at the University of Wisconsin, went into this season with a decent 2-deep depth chart...light on experience, but more bodies than he had last fall. Instead, with just 4 games played, that depth was decimated with an unusually heavy list of injuries. Through it all he's started a redshirt freshman every game this year at center (Adam Korby) and at guard (Kris Anderson). He's played a couple true sophomores at guard (Marcis Fennell and Desmond Clark). His anchors at tackle, juniors Hank Therien and Nate VanderPol have battled injuries, while ironman left guard Jade Tadvick (a junior) went down with an emergency appendectomy two weeks ago. The mounting injuries forced Eck to burn the redshirt of true-freshman Billy Bates (#71 in photo), who has responded admirably and remains atop the left tackle depth chart. Through it all Eck kept this unit together and showed progress despite the adversity.
Idaho should see the return of VanderPol and possibly Tadvick for the Fresno State game. Clark should be back in the fold at Nevada. With all the playing time this entire unit has seen this year, the depth chart should be fairly solid for the final stretch of the season.
Equally of note, the entire unit should be back next fall, as 4 freshmen currently redshirting are also expected to join the mix. In a year's time, this could go from being one of the thinnest units to one of the strongest units on the team...which is exactly what you want in the trenches.
Hat's off to Coach Eck and the job his young platoon has done so far this fall.