Bring on the Vandals!

DESERVEDLY SO after two straight upset victories, Idaho fans ought to have a swagger in their collective step as they prance into Martin Stadium on Thursday night for the season opening showdown between the Cougars and Vandals.

Cougar partisans, whose Pollyannic ways are never higher than in August, are cautiously optimistic that this third scrap with their country cousins will turn out the way they confidently figured the last two would.

And, on paper at least, this looks to be a match up that is distinctly on the Cougars' side. WSU returns 16 starters, whereas Idaho is scrambling to replace 12 of the guys who dumped all over Mike Price a year ago.

Of course, that kind of disparity doesn't account for heart or inexperienced talent rising to the occasion or even Tom Cable's excellent play calling. But facts are facts: These are not the same two teams that battled in 1999 and 2000.

The most telling difference is in the trenches. The Vandals returns but one starter on the offensive line, Jake Scott. That means unproven youngsters and JC transfers will be squaring off with a Cougar defensive line that is quick, deep and experienced.  With Rien Long, Tai Tupai, Jeremey Williams and Nate Mallory taking turns clogging up the middle, swifties Tupo Tuppo, D.D. Acholunu and Issac Brown could make life from the ends one long flash dance for hard-throwing Vandal QB John Welsh.

Alas, though, Idaho is deep at receiver and figures to use as many as seven against the Cougars. So if Welsh can get rid of the ball quickly we could be in store for another donnybrook of a night. Four of Idaho's wideouts -- Chris Lacy, Josh Jelmberg, Chris Belser and Ethan Jones --- had at least 15 catches in Y2K. There's also Rossi Martin, Idaho's top grab-master of '99, who's back in action after sitting out last year with grade woes. And youngster Orlando Winston is considered a rising star out of the slot.
 

GAME TIME:
7 p.m. kickoff, Thursday, August 30.

TELEVISION:
Live on Fox Sports Northwest.

THE RECORDS:
Cougars finished 2000 at 4-7, while the Vandals were 5-6.

MATCHUPS
TO WATCH:

WSU's inexperienced receivers vs. Idaho's largely untested secondary; and WSU's experienced defensive line vs. Idaho's inexperienced offensive line.

LAST SEASON:
Vandals won 38-34 when John Welsh capped a 10-play, 57-yard drive with a one-yard TD plunge with 40 seconds left. The Cougars drove to the Idaho 36 in the waning moments, but Jason Gesser's Hail Mary was batted down in the end zone as time expired.

GAME BREAKERS:
Idaho -- John Welsh and Wil Beck. WSU  Jason Gesser, David Minnich, Raonall Smith and Billy Newman.

THE PREDICTION:
WSU 24, Idaho 17
 

IDAHO DEFENSE KEY

Defense, however, is where Idaho will sink or swim against the Cougars. The Vandals' stop-corps has proven opportunistic against the Cougars, and many of the key components of the last two upsets are back. The line returns three starters, including Big West co-defensive player of the year Wil Beck, as well as 1999 starting end Dennis Taeatafa who sat out last season. Hard-hitting Jordan Kramer and Brad Rice are also back  but not at safety. They're going to line up at linebacker this season, leaving the secondary to a largely untested group.

"I expect this to be a hard-hitting, hard-fought game," says Paul Sorensen, who will be Fox Sports Northwest's sideline reporter for the game.

"Idaho has some great athletes, good size and a wide-open offense led by an experienced quarterback. They also have no doubt they can win. The Cougars on the other hand have something to prove and I expect Mike Levenseller (the new offensive coordinator) will have a few new wrinkles up his sleeve. This should be a good one."

NOTABLE NOTES

  • The Vandals deserve combat pay for the schedule they have to face in the first five weeks of the season: Three Pac-10 teams  WSU, Arizona and Washington plus Big Sky powerhouse Montana and always-tough arch-rival Boise State.
  • Look to see four QBs in the Cougar-Vandal game. Head coaches Price and Cable have both promised that their No. 2 signal callers will see action Matt Kegel for WSU and redshirt freshman Brian Lindgren of Walla Walla for Idaho.
  • In all of 2000, only two of WSU's kickoffs were not returned. This season, with JC transfer walk on Adam Holiday handling the kickoff chores, look for it to be a rarity when a kickoff does come out of the end zone against the Cougars.
  • Look for sidelined Cougar starters Tomasi Kongaika and Al Genatone to be back in action against Boise State on Sept. 15. Although Genatone could go against Idaho, the Cougars aren't going to take any chances rushing him along since they're so thin at middle backer.
  • With all the paperwork and approvals that are needed, it will probably be several weeks before the Cougars know if receiver Devard Darling, a coveted transfer from Florida State, will be eligible to play this season.  Darling is 6-3, 180 and runs the 40 in 4.3 seconds.
  • 1999 Vandal rushing leader Anthony Tenner will get the nod over Zach Gerstner and Blair Lewis for the starting tailback spot against WSU, The Spokesman-Review reports. All three, though, figure to see action.  At fullback, look for Gonzaga Prep's Kevin O'Connell to start. He'll be backed by sophomore Nate Griffin and freshman Willie Sipoloa.

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