Last Saturday, the Idaho Vandals did something they hadn’t done in a decade: they won their season-opening game, and in dominating fashion. The New Mexico State Aggies were never even close, falling to the Vandals by the score of 21-6.
With 60 minutes of chain-moving offense and stifling defense on the hostile turf of Aggie Stadium, coach Robb Akey and Akey’s Army just may have done something even more important: bring hope to a program that, for much of the last decade, has known little but futility and despair.
This Saturday, when the Vandals travel to Seattle to face the Washington Huskies, we should find out whether or not Idaho football is truly on the road back to respectability. Vandal Nation will bring it to you live from Husky Stadium.
An acid test in Husky Stadium
If the Vandals’ season-opening win in Las Cruces provided a much-needed confidence boost, the upcoming contest in Seattle will provide a sobering reality check. The Washington Huskies may be on a 15-game losing streak, but under new coach Steve Sarkisian, they looked like a whole new team and were nearly a match for nationally-ranked LSU. Jake Locker is one of the best QBs in America right now. Make no mistake, Washington desperately wants a victory and smells blood in the water with Idaho coming to town. The oddsmakers have laid their bets — the Vandals are 21-point underdogs.
Akey’s Army certainly wants a win too, and the upset is by no means out of the question. But a loss would not be unexpected, nor need it be disastrous. What would be both of those is a loss in which the Vandals are never even close. Idaho needs to score early, score often and not fall behind by too great a margin. Keep the game within a touchdown going into the fourth quarter, and the last 15 minutes will be anyone’s ballgame.
Either way, the Vandals can come back to Moscow with heads held high after battling a Pac-10 team to the final whistle. If that happens, Akey’s Army will be in great shape to take down San Diego State in the Kibbie Dome next week in the home opener. But if the Vandals return home with slumped shoulders, having been mercilessly destroyed by the Huskies, the hard-won confidence of this week will be but a distant memory.
There’s every reason to believe the Vandals can take the fight to the Huskies and come out victorious — but it won’t happen unless the flaws exposed by the Aggies are fixed, or at least patched up. Read on to find out what gives us hope and what gives us pause.
Start with the offense. Nate Enderle, while hardly looking like a Heisman candidate, turned in a solid performance under center. Yes, he gave up an ugly interception, but he also threw two touchdowns and, when it counted, consistently connected on key third-and-long situations. On the other end of the ball, the Vandals now have a corps of talented receivers — Preston Davis, Max Komar, Daniel Hardy and Maurice Shaw all grabbed big catches, with Komar and Hardy hauling in touchdown passes. That kind of platoon at wideout means defenses can’t just lock out one stud (tight end Eddie Williams was the Vandals’ only reliable receiver last year). The running game saw Princeton McCarty, Deonte Jackson and DeMaundray Woolridge all take multiple carries and effectively punch holes in the Aggies’ defensive line. The clock-chewing second-half drives couldn’t run up the score, but still were able to deny NMSU more chances at a comeback.
On defense, the Vandals were merciless for the entire first half. The Aggies’ six possessions in the first 30 minutes ended thusly: punt, fumble, punt, punt, a shanked field goal, the clock expiring. Gaining just 32 yards on the ground and collecting only 10 first downs, New Mexico State was stuffed into a halftime hole from which it couldn’t recover. A unit that looked somewhat shaky in its final practices came together on the field and performed beautifully. Even when they slacked off in the second half, the D still came up with big plays when it counted late: a huge Shiloh Keo interception in the end zone with six minutes left and a fumble with under a minute to go, forced by Isaac Butts and recovered by Jeromy Jones, which effectively ended the game.
What needs to change
The Vandals still need to build a killer instinct. The lapses and mistakes that were mere annoyances against the Aggies will be game-losers against the Huskies.
Idaho’s offense fell asleep in the second period. After a 21-point first half, the four Idaho drives in the second half ended in a punt, a turnover on downs, another punt and the clock expiring. One more touchdown in the half could have sealed the game entirely, putting the Aggies’ comeback hopes in the grave. Instead, the Vandals seemed content to hold onto the ball for a few series and then punt it away. Every time the Vandals reached NMSU’s red zone, they got in for a touchdown. There’s not much excuse for Idaho not reaching it at least once more. The Huskies aren’t going to give the Vandals many opportunities to take control of the game — missing them would likely be fatal.
The defense also seemed to take a nap during the final stages. Perhaps trying to protect against a big play that could let NMSU back in the game, the Vandal linebackers let Aggie QB Jeff Fleming toss short pass after after short pass, giving the home team a string of first downs and good reason to think they could claw back in without a highlight-reel Hail Mary. The pass rush seemed to go away entirely, giving Fleming eons in the pocket. Against New Mexico State’s young and struggling offense, this only resulted in a single score. Against Washington and Jake Locker, that’ll ensure defeat.
The Vandals at a crossroads
The simple fact is, Washington is a Pac-10 team loaded with Pac-10 talent and coached by one of the game’s great offensive minds. No matter how bad their previous record (and perhaps because of it) they will be out for blood and, on paper, they should win this game.
What we need to see in Seattle is an Idaho team that doesn’t fold its cards when adversity hits, an Idaho team that can roll with the punches that Jake Locker will undoubtedly deliver, an Idaho team that can strike back and slog it out.
If we do that, if we make Sarkisian go for his secret antiperspirant stash with five minutes left, then we will have avoided the disaster which befell the Vandals after last season’s opening 70-0 thumping by Arizona: a catastrophic confidence collapse.
It may seem odd to call the season’s first two games a turning point for the Idaho Vandals, but a turning point this is — not just for this year’s team, but for the program as a whole. We’re going to find out whether the progress is real. After soundly thrashing the Aggies, is Akey’s Army truly ready to climb out of the WAC’s cellar, or did they just beat up on a cripple?
By Saturday night, we should know the answer.