On the heels of back-to-back double-digit loss seasons in 2007 and 2008, then third-year Idaho head coach Robb Akey led the Vandals to a Humanitarian Bowl victory over Bowling Green in 2009. It was just the second bowl appearance in program history. Just over two seasons later, any momentum from the 2009 campaign is long gone as the Vandals now struggle to merely win a game.
Following a mediocre season in 2010 (6-7, 3-5 WAC), Idaho fell to the bottom of the Western Athletic Conference in 2011 (2-10, 1-6 WAC). San Jose State was the lone FBS team to lose to Idaho in 2011 although the Vandals did put a scare into Virginia. It took overtime for the Cavaliers to pull out a 21-20 win.
Idaho struggled immensely on offense last season. Out of 120 FBS teams, the Vandals ranked 111th in total offense (301.5 ypg) and 107th in scoring offense (20.25 ppg). However, win only two games and it is typically a well-balanced struggle. The Idaho defense was no help for the offense in 2011, ranking 101st in total defense (436.85 ypg) and 98th in scoring defense (33.25 ppg).
So far in 2012, under the guidance of first-year starting quarterback Dominique Blackman, the Vandals' passing attack is improved and ranks 51st in the country (250.25 ypg). However, outside of the passing game, the statistics tell the tale of Idaho's 0-4 start this season. The Vandals rank among the bottom 20 teams in seven offensive and defensive categories, including turnover margin (-1.75), scoring offense (16.75 ppg) and scoring defense (36 ppg).
"They're going to knock out the sun with their offensive line. The small guy is 300 pounds. That's the little fella. They're big, they're athletic, they're damn good. Their quarterback is a good player and they make plays." – Akey
"That has not been something I've even thought about. I don't think all of a sudden when you've had a bad taste in your mouth for two weeks and all of a sudden you get back on the other side that all of a sudden you're confident and overlook anybody, because, again, the focus is not going to be on Idaho this week. That's not where this is going to be. The focus is going to be on us. Everything that we're doing, everything in practice is about us getting better as a football team scheme-wise, all of those things. We just take care of our business then we're not going to worry about the other part of it." – North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora on looking past Idaho and towards Virginia Tech the following week
Matchups to Watch
Idaho quarterback Dominique Blackman vs. UNC's Defense
Blackman (87-of-119, 832 yards, 6 TD, 5 INT) turned heads in his first career start against Bowling Green on Sept. 8. Despite the 20-13 loss, the junior threw for 352 yards and a touchdown, completing over 81-percent of his attempts. On the season, Blackman ranks ninth nationally in completion percentage (73.11) as well as completions per game (29).
While the majority of his numbers came against Bowling Green and Wyoming, Blackman also faced a high-level defense this season in LSU. The Carson, Calif. native threw four interceptions against the Tigers but managed to add a couple of touchdowns as well. The experience will more than likely serve him well moving forward as Blackman is unlikely to be overwhelmed by the size or speed of North Carolina's defense after facing LSU just two weeks ago.
"I think he's come a long ways in a lot of ways," Akey said. "His decision making is pretty strong, for the most part. I keep working with him on his focus. I love the swagger and the confidence that comes with Dom. It also needs to be focused and channeled. He makes a great play, we make a great play as an offense and he's hooting and hollering, that's great but let's get focused let's get the next play ready to go."
At 6-foot-5, 255-pounds, Blackman has reason to be confident. His size allows for him to not only easily see over the line of scrimmage and look for open targets, but it also makes him tough for smaller defenders to bring down. The only other quarterback North Carolina faces this season who can compare to Blackman's size is Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas, who is 6-foot-6, 260-pounds.
Nobody is going to mistake Blackman for Thomas at this point in their respective careers, but they do have similar builds. Blackman does not look to run nearly as much as Thomas, but his 28-yard scamper last week against Wyoming demonstrated he is capable of making plays with his feet.
Coincidentally, Thomas and Virginia Tech pay a visit to Chapel Hill, N.C. next weekend. While the Tar Heels are not looking ahead, going up against a quarterback as large as Blackman should provide the North Carolina defense with a tremendous test and a well-timed preview of what it takes to defend a player that size.
Idaho's Offensive Line vs. UNC's Defensive Line
A word most observers would likely use to describe the 2012 North Carolina football season so far is inconsistency. At times the Tar Heels have looked virtually unstoppable and at other times they cannot seem to get out of their own way. No group symbolizes this inconsistency more than the North Carolina defensive line.
The same unit that was easily held at bay by an inexperienced and patchwork Wake Forest offensive line was able to generate eight quarterback hurries and three sacks last week against East Carolina. It will be interesting to see which Tar Heel defensive line shows up to Kenan Stadium on Saturday.
The Idaho offensive line lost three starters from a year ago and is still adjusting to a new offensive scheme under first-year offensive coordinator Jason Gesser. This has led to plenty of inconsistency of their own so far in 2012.
LSU was unable to record a sack against Idaho, a credit to the offensive line as well as the strength of Blackman. At the same time, it was the only time in the first four games the offensive line did not surrender at least three sacks. Bowling Green got to Blackman six times in the second week of the season.
North Carolina is currently tied with Florida State for the most sacks in the ACC (13). Even though only seven of those sacks come from the defensive line, tackle Sylvester Williams (3.5 sacks) and defensive end Kareem Martin (2 sacks) lead the team in sacks along with linebacker Kevin Reddick (2 sacks).
On paper, North Carolina should physically dominate the matchup against the Vandals offensive line. However, the same was said about the Tar Heels against Wake Forest as well as LSU against the Vandals. Idaho's line has the experience of going up against arguably the best defensive line in the country so they will not be intimidated by the players across from them on Saturday. North Carolina's defensive line needs to demonstrate consistency and play to its potential on Saturday rather than to the level of its competition.