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Washington State season preview: Idaho in Week Three

IDAHO HAS STRUGGLED mightily in the past but USA Today projects the Vandals in 2016 to finish sixth in the 11-member Sun Belt conference, a major step up. The ‘16 buzz is that the Vandals have a real shot at six wins and bowl eligibility after a 4-8 season in 2015. A lot of offensive pieces return from ‘15. The Vandal defense that Washington State will face, however, is a different story.

Opponent: Idaho

Returning starters: 15 (6 defense, 7 offense, 2 special teams)

Date of matchup: Sept. 17 (11 a.m., Pac-12 Network)

Location/venue: Martin Stadium, Pullman

Star players: QB Matt Linehan, R-Jr., C Steve Matlock, Sr., TE Trent “Buck” Cowan, Sr., TE/WR Deon Watson, R-Sr., LB Kaden Elliss, So., DL Tueni Lupeamanu, Sr., K/P Austin Rehkow, Sr.

Matchup to watch for: Idaho’s passing attack vs. the Cougar D
If the Wazzu D heads into the third practice week thinking they can just show up, Idaho will put points on the board come Saturday. Three-year starting QB Linehan has three o-line starters back plus three of his top five WRs. The receiving trio of  Hightower, Cowan and Watson combined for 1,924 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.

Idaho might not have as good a run game as last year and is expected in '16 to spread the ball around and look to stress a defense sideline-to-sideline. The Vandals ranked No. 27 nationally in passing offense with 281.3 ypg last season and have a lot of the key offensive pieces back.

Area of weakness that WSU could exploit:
It might be a lonely day for the Cougs' punter -- Wazzu QB Luke Falk and the Air Raid should put up some big numbers, and some single-game program records could be in danger. Idaho was woeful on defense last season and any improvement in 2016 is expected to be slight.

While there is returning depth at safety, Idaho allowed 42.1 points and 485.0 yards per game in 2015. They ranked No. 117 nationally in total defense and No. 122 out of 127 FBS teams in scoring defense.

A quick analysis of the stakes, considering three possible outcomes:
1) WSU wins big. Idaho is better than people think headed into the season but Wazzu winning big remains the expectation. Idaho will be hard pressed to stop Falk and Co. from visiting the end zone early and often. Idaho could come out hot and keep things close for a while, but it’s hard to see the Vandals sticking with Wazzu through four quarters.

2) WSU wins close. If Washington State lets Idaho build early confidence and/or becomes frustrated at being unable to mount a big lead, the Vandals could hang around and keep the outcome in doubt longer than expected. The silver lining in a close WSU victory: the Cougs would head into the bye week having received a major wake-up call before Oregon comes to town. That, and Mike Leach would probably revisit his ‘zombies and empty corpses’ quote.

3) Idaho wins. Clearly, the nightmare scenario for Wazzu.  Idaho would desperately love to pull off a major upset of its neighbor and shine positive national light on a program that has had just four winning season since rejoining FBS in 1996.

NOTABLE NOTES:
* Former Washington State defensive coordinator Mike Breske, dismissed by Leach after the 2014 season, enters his second season in '16 as Idaho’s d-coordinator.  Few people have the experience Breske does in going against Leach’s Air Raid day in and day out in practice for three years while in Pullman.

* Idaho plays the Huskies the week before the matchup with Wazzu, undoubtedly leading to all kinds of comparisons between Wazzu and UW heading into the Cougs’ bye week.

* Idaho is joining the FCS and the Big Sky in 2018. 

* According to a report from fbschedules.com, WSU has scheduled Idaho for the 2020 season and will pay UI $550,000 for the game. 

* No matter how many times you see the 2013 post-game exchange between Leach and Idaho coach Paul Petrino, it just never gets old.

RELATED:
WSU vs. Eastern Washington preview
WSU vs. Boise State preview


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