WSU in Week 4: Battle of the Palouse resumes

FOR THE FIRST time in six years, Washington State and Idaho will meet on the football field Sep. 21, 2013. Both programs are going through a rebuilding process -- but the two schools are in very different phases of said process. So what will happen this season when the Battle of the Palouse kicks off in Week 4?

The Cougs have won seven straight against the Vandals and on paper, they appear a virtual lock to make it eight.

The Vandals lost their leading rusher, their best d-lineman and No. 1 receiver to graduation. They're starting over at quarterback, linebacker, defensive back and with their specialists.

There wasn't one UI unit last year that stood out, and now many of those starters are gone. As is former head coach Robb Akey. New Idaho head man Paul Petrino takes on his first head coaching job with 11 returning starters -- seven on offense, four on defense.

ON DEFENSE, Petrino's new defensive coordinator is Ronny Lee, an old Cougar defensive back and an underrated coach.

But he has two defensive ends, Quinton Bradley and Maxx Forde (remember him?), and not much else in terms of proven experience. Only one Idaho linebacker saw playing time last year. The top two safeties and two of their three top corners were all lost to graduation.

Idaho's best unit on defense is likely to be the line, and it would have been better had DT Quayshawne Buckley (remember him?) not gotten himself kicked off the team this offseason.

Lee will be charged with improving a defense that couldn't stop anyone on the ground or through the air in 2012, ranking near the bottom nationally in both categories. Idaho tried to blitz, tried to stay home and everything in between -- but nothing seemed to work as they surrendered an average of 42.4 points per game.

THE STORYLINE WAS just as dim on offense in 2012 for the Vandals. Idaho scored more than 28 points just once, averaging 15.8 ppg on the season. They lost 70-28 to Louisiana Tech to drop to 1-7 and Akey was fired.

Petrino is known for his productive air attack but he might try and run more this season.

The good news for Idaho is that the better units on both offense and defense are the lines – so there's something to build around. Arguably, Idaho figures to be better at running the ball than providing protection, particularly against the blitz, if last year is any indicator. Petrino in his first season as OC at Illinois fashioned a unit that ranked No. 11 in the nation in running, so he's not averse to the run game.

Indeed, even though Petrino is known for his passing attack, he's always looked to get the running game going, and then move to play action as things open up.

Up front for Idaho, Mike Marboe (remember him?) is the bell cow. Sophomores Dallas Sandberg and Cody Elenz are likely to start on the left side of Marboe and two more o-linemen have starting experience.

The starting running back will be either Jerrel Brown or Kris Olugbode – both junior college transfers. Both are power runners, with Brown at 6-0, 200 and Olugbode checking in at 5-9, 200 pounds.

The quarterback situation is muddled. Taylor Davis is a senior and with 12 games of experience but he may have bumped up against his ceiling. The best QB this spring was probably freshman Chad Chalich, but none of the QBs were all that consistent. True freshman Joshua McCain will get a serious look when he takes the field for the first time as a Vandal in fall camp.

Petrino might gamble here and go young, thinking they'll pay their QB dues now for more benefits down the road.

Petrino's offense always has three receivers on the field and most often, four. Idaho has some talent returning here, with senior Najee Lovett (50 receptions for 543 yards). But junior Jahrie Level (46 catches for 538 hashes) transferred this spring. If big numbers are to be put up by the Idaho WR corps, they're probably going to come after the game has been decided and in garbage time. There are just too many holes on O.

THIS SPRING, IDAHO went through some intense conditioning. Marboe lost 22 pounds and other o-linemen did close to the same, for example. The Vandals should be in better shape this season than in years previous, with the hope that they can stay with bigger teams and then let their stamina take over down the stretch.

There was plenty of optimism this spring in Moscow, too. A new coach, a new beginning. But it was tempered when at the end of spring ball, two assistants quit. One apparently left for greener pastures and the other got out of the coaching game altogether, choosing to join a business startup in Lewiston.

It's going to take some time to pull Idaho up from the depths. But it also wasn't too long ago when Idaho was winning a bowl game (2009) and right on the cusp of another bowl berth (2010).

That said, as far as this season's WSU-Idaho game goes -- if the outcome hasn't been decided by halftime or at most, the third quarter, the Cougs didn't take the week leading up to the game seriously. As long as WSU prepares properly, the 2013 Battle of the Palouse should be an opportunity for the Cougars to hone all phases of their game, win by a large margin and get a lot of reserves some playing time.

NOTABLE NOTES:
  • WSU leads the series 70-18-3 (.786)

  • On special teams, Idaho's return men are back but they weren't all that special in 2012. The Vandals lose their kicking specialists, which were relatively solid last year.

  • Idaho will spend this season as an FBS independent, before joining the Sun Belt Conference in 2014.

  • Some elements of Idaho's offense under Petrino will look familiar to Coug fans, such as the shallow cross, for example. Unlike in the Air Raid, however, the running back and shallow receiver run their patterns to the same side.

  • Petrino has generally had good success offensively but there have been exceptions – last year at Arkansas was a big disappointment and after a strong first season at Illinois, the Illini offense fell off precipitously in his second season.

  • Petrino's offensive coordinator, Kris Cinkovich, is seen in some circles as an offensive guru. But like most areas when considering the 2013 Vandals, the question is how much experienced talent he has to work with.

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