The Vandals, which had built so much momentum in the Chris Tormey era, have utterly imploded under third-year coach Tom Cable, winning just three games in the last 2 campaigns.
How bad has it been? Since Idaho's blowout loss to WSU in 2001, opponents have scored an average of 41 points per game, even more alarming considering the majority of Idaho's opponents herald from the Sun Belt conference. Now, in the final year of Cable's contract, a senior laden Vandal squad knows they must produce, and it must begin by avoiding another crushing season-opening loss to the Cougars.
THE VANDALS ON OFFENSE
Overview: For all of Idaho's failures, the offense bears little to blame. The Vandals managed to score a respectable 24 points per game last season. They were successful in the passing game but have lost all the skill positions starters except for QB Brian Lindgren, who, ironically, has been removed from the lead spot in favor of sophomore Michael Harrington (AKA: Joey's Little Bro).
Aiding him will be veteran group of 8 seniors slated to be starters. Idaho runs a standard two-back set and focuses on intermediate range controlled passing. They'll try and mix it up with two-tight end or three back formations, then some weird stacked slot receiver sets that defy description. They never threw the ball out of a shotgun set against WSU last year, but that may change this time around as Harrington needs more time to throw. Cable may also look to take the passing down a notch in an effort to keep his defense rested and reduce the 28 turnovers they had last year. However, the Vandal running attack may lack the personnel needed to execute a different strategy.
Strategy: Idaho has a veteran offensive line with 4 senior starters (weak side tackle Jake Scott and center Matt Martinez, appear to be the strong points), but they are weak at running back and wide receiver. Expect them to remain confident in their passing game, but they'll try to lengthen drives by attempting more runs and quick passes. They know they must keep their defense off the field to keep this game close. Cougars should contain the run first and put plenty of pressure on the green QB. Last year WSU regularly put 6 to 7 men on the line of scrimmage without paying for it. RB Zack Gerstner will likely be a safety valve, but short cut route passes to the receivers are their bread and butter when they see blitzes.
Players to Know: Lindgren – Solid pocket-style passer with good accuracy and average arm strength. The senior would have been a third year starter. Threw for 2800 yards and 63 per cent completions before missing the last two games with a broken collarbone in ‘02. Has good size, but mobility has been an issue. Cougars came at him hard last year and despite a lot of hits and zero run support, he played fairly well. Unfortunately he was the victim of a lot of dropped balls and a bad case of Trufantitis. If things go south early for Harrington, plan on Lindgren seeing action.
Harrington is very capable, but very young. After splitting time with the first team during fall drills he was (surprisingly) named the starter.
Hank Therien (Strong side OT) – The only underclassman on the line is the biggest of the bunch (6-7, 318 pounds) and comes with a bit of hype. If he steps up to the plate the line should be sound.
Bobby Bernal-Wood (WR) – Idaho returns no starters at the receiver position and the reserves are undersized. They picked up JC transfer Bernal-Wood, who at 6-2 is more physical and athletic than the rest. Possible impact player and is likely to be the fastest of a slow crew of receivers.
Orlando Winston (WR) – Solid possession receiver with the most experience of the group; caught 50 passes for 624 yards last year. Think Scott Lunde.
Zack Gerstner (RB) and Malfred Shaw (RB) – Pair of senior running backs of similar build and ability are expected to share the load. Shaw is a bit better runner but Gerstner adds a moderate receiving threat. Expect to see more of Shaw until WSU proves they can stop the run. Last year, Idaho backs were a complete non-factor, so Gerstner saw more action. To keep this one close they will need solid production from their backfield.
THE VANDALS ON DEFENSE
Overview: The Vandal defenders have been broken and beaten more times and in more ways than they can remember. They gave up an average of 460 yards per game last season and forced a mere 14 turnovers in 12 games (8 interceptions, 6 fumbles). Last year the Cougars virtually scored at will on them whether they ran or threw the ball. Averaging a hair under 10 yards per play on both passes and rush attempts, the Cougs were still driving 80 yards in the fourth quarter with third stringers up against the Vandal first team.
Strategy: Most teams in this situation will try to make up for a lack of talent by pressuring the hell out the opposing quarterback in an effort to have a punchers chance at victory. Given the fact that Matt Kegel is a first year starter, expect Idaho to blitz often.
As a whole, Idaho's defensive ends are similar to WSU (230-ish pounds) but with less speed and power. The right end is a rookie and there is no depth behind them. They will probably need to utilize the linebackers, safeties, and even corners to get maximum pressure on the quarterback.
The good news for the Cougs is the Vandal secondary is arguably the worst in the country and the defense as a whole showed absolutely no ability to stop the run. Kegel may need to pass surprisingly little. Idaho will have also focused in the off season on trying to strip the football to improve upon the paltry 6 fumbles they recovered last season. The Vandal defense is very small in places and comparatively slower and weaker than the players they will be defending, so the Cougars should keep it simple and rely on this basic deficiency. In the secondary, free safety Darryl Murphy is a poorly converted cornerback and whoever plays opposite Rod Bryant at the other corner position will be green and exploitable (Brandon Mascorro is a 5 foot 9 freshman and is projected to start). Cougs may have trouble running up the gut but the sheer size advantage of the tackles should create big holes off the corners. Last year Wazzu ran a lot of counters and traps between the guard and tackle and the Idaho defense had absolutely no answer for it.
Players to Know: Brian Howard and Kelly Talavou (DTs): This is an area of relative strength for their defense that also matches up with a potential weak point in our offense (center). If these guys step up big, it could cause some problems.
Chad Kodama, Pat Libey, and Mike Anderson (LBs) – Decent crew of linebackers with good size, but a bit short on speed. Libey is large (240 lbs) and will try to clog up the middle. Anderson is a decent blitzer off the weak side. Backup LBs are very small and inexperienced, so depth will be a big issue if they get tired.
Bryant (CB) – Bryant is a decent corner, which is to say he is the strongest link in the candy necklace that is the Vandal secondary. He can be effective, but can't cover the other two, three, or even four receivers we can throw at them.
THE VANDALS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Ryan Downes (P) – Somewhat overrated resource. He is a Ray Guy candidate who averaged 41.6 per punt last year, but the numbers are a little misleading. Downes fires low line drive punts that setup good returns if fielded cleanly. He needed to improve his leg strength in the off-season.
Brian Pope (K) – Another potential weak spot. Converted kickoff specialist with a big leg. Pope played back up to Keith Stamps, who was an abysmal 7 for 17 in field goal attempts in ‘02. Two other candidates are also vying to fill his rather small shoes.
Cedric Thompson (KR, PR) – Decent asset, averaged 8.3 per punt return and 22.6 on kickoffs.
On paper, this game is a total mismatch. The bruising, attacking style WSU threw at the Vandals worked to perfection last year. So, expect the Cougs to keep it simple again, taking comfort in the fact that they're bigger, stronger, faster, and more experienced. Coach Bill Doba should utilize these strengths and let Idaho take the gambles. If the Cougs wear down the defense early, they'll pound them to dust. Jermaine Green and company need plenty of reps. Their punishing north south style should be quite effective, especially behind Calvin Armstrong and Sam Lightbody's blocking. While he might not need it, the deep ball is also a viable option for Kegel. The Vandal corners are considerably shorter and lighter than the WSU receivers and could get bossed around on jump balls. Defensively, Wazzu needs to cover the short slant routes on their receivers. Harrington and Lindgren may not have time to setup much else and should rely heavily on slants. Idaho's best chance is to keep their defense off the field, so stopping those quick third down passes is key for WSU.