We’ve got the second half of our midseason report card — looking at the Vandals’ defensive and special teams units. The first half, covering the offense, can be found here.
Defensive line: A-
The Vandals’ defensive front has bullied teams all season, and that’s why Idaho has the WAC’s #1 rushing defense. Giving up just 95.6 yards per game on the ground, this unit has absolutely dominated the line of scrimmage against most every opponent. This was particularly noticeable against Northern Illinois. The Huskies had piled up 280 yards on the ground the week before against the Big 10’s Purdue, and were expecting to run all over the Vandals. But nothing doing — Northern Illinois was able to net just 128 yards against Idaho.
Bruising defensive ends Aaron Lavarias (23 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 TFLs) and Michael Cosgrove (21 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 TFLs) and nose tackle Jonah Sataraka (21 tackles 3 sacks, 4 TFLs) have not only plugged up the front, they’ve harried opposing quarterbacks and, once again, made big clutch plays. Notably, Lavarias’ sack and forced fumble on Hawaii quarterback Bryant Moniz was a game-changer, putting the Vandal offense back on the field for the clinching drive.
This crew is getting the job done. JoJo Dickson is the Vandals’ second-leading tackler with 39 and has two picks and a sack to boot. Robert Siavii and Paul Senescall aren’t far down the list with 31 apiece and both have generally stayed remarkably healthy despite being in for a ton of plays. The only reason the grade isn’t higher? As we’ll talk about in the secondary section, Idaho hasn’t done a great job defending the pass, and the linebackers certainly share in some of the blame.
The surprise of the season on this unit has to be sophomore Tre’Shawn Robinson, who hasn’t started a game yet but leads the team in tackles for loss, with six for 26 yards, including a quarterback sack. He only has 18 total tackles — so fully one-third of them have set back the offense.
Idaho’s secondary has been blasted apart all season long. That’s one reason the Vandals sit 8th in the WAC in passing defense, giving up nearly 270 yards per game through the air. It’s not so much that our guys are getting burned; rather, to keep from being burned they’re giving up big cushions to receivers. Safeties Shiloh Keo and Jeromy Jones are playing for tackles rather than preventing catches. Idaho has allowed opponents to connect on 65% of their passes. That’s simply not going to get it done as the Vandals move deeper into the conference season.
That being said, the secondary has also found ways to come up with big plays just when they’re needed. The Vandals have clinched three consecutive games with interceptions: Keo against Colorado State and Hawaii, defensive back Kenneth Patten against San Jose State. Of note: Idaho’s fourth-leading tackler is true freshman defensive back Aaron Grymes, whose career with the Vandals is off to a stellar start.
Defense overall: B-
Like the offense, Idaho’s defense is a work in progress. It’s a little further behind than the O, particularly when it comes to passing. Hawaii showed the world how to hang with Idaho — just chuck up the ball, because we simply can’t stop the aerial game. Big passing teams should scare the daylights out of us.
But again like the offense, the unit’s defining characteristic has been its performance in the clutch. Time after time, Idaho’s defenders have come up big when the game is on the line, making key stops, huge sacks or timely interceptions just when things are looking grim for the Silver and Gold. OK, so they’re not exactly the Wrecking Crew, but the record says 6-1, and that says the defense has done just enough. To get to where Idaho wants to be, however, will require the defense to do even more.
Read on for our special teams grades.
True freshman kicker Trey Farquhar has done just about everything that could possibly have been asked of him. He leads the WAC in field goals, having made 11 of 14 attempts, and has booted 24 of 25 extra points — that one being blocked, not missed. His 52-yarder against Colorado State already puts him seventh on the Vandals’ list of all-time longest field goals. Redshirt freshman Bobby Cowan has performed equally well at the punt position — though the offense has kept him from doing much. He’s only had to punt 18 times in 7 games, by far the fewest punts of any team in the WAC. Shoddy return coverage has let him down on the distance average, though.
Kick coverage: B-
The Vandals have been a little schizophrenic on kickoff return coverage, and the middling average kind of belies what’s happened on the field. It seems that either the Vandals will get a good stuff and hold the returner nowhere, or they’ll give up a big runback to the 30 or 40-yard line. There’s no middle ground. Punt return coverage has been poor, giving up an average of 9 yards per punt — which gives Idaho the worst punting average in the conference despite Cowan’s excellent leg. True freshman safety Gary Walker has been getting play on the cover team and is looking strong.
Kick returns: B
Nothing spectacular, nothing explosive here, but not bad either. The Vandals are fourth in the WAC, averaging 21.1 yards per return. Boise State, the No. 1 return team in the conference, is only averaging five yards more. Oddly, not a single team in the WAC has yet returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Idaho’s hardly returned any punts, which knocks the grade down a bit. Sure, it’s playing it safe, but it’s also giving up yardage opportunities.
Special teams overall: B+
If it feels like this is getting repetitious, it is. The theme of the Vandals this season in a lot of ways is “get the job done.” Farquhar and Cowan are the standouts here — for freshmen, they’ve done a stellar job and handled the pressure quite admirably. Considering that they have three more years to develop, the Vandals’ kicking game has the potential to be scary good down the road. The kick coverage side of things definitely needs work, though — some of it is simply depth and that can only be remedied by time.