Surprises have abounded for the Idaho football program through four games, and one of them no doubt is the play of the offensive line. You can read more about the unit below in my Idaho/WAC notebook that will run in tomorrow's paper.
By Josh Wright
MOSCOW, Idaho - A mere four Saturdays into the season, Dan Finn has gathered enough evidence to be certain of one thing. This is the finest batch of linemen he's seen at Idaho, the Vandals' offensive line coach says.
And he reminds his players of that constantly.
“I think we have more talent up front since any time I've been here,” said Finn, in his third year at UI. “And I think we're pretty good.”
The veteran offensive line has provided a steadying presence for the Vandals - off to their best start, at 3-1, since John L. Smith was coach in 1994. Led by behemoth left guard Mike Iupati, the front five has helped the running game click and given quarterback Nathan Enderle the time to feel at ease in the pocket.
The results, to this point, would have been unthinkable a month ago. Idaho's aerial attack is ranked No. 3 in the Western Athletic Conference, and UI is ninth in the nation in third-down efficiency (55.6 percent).
The upstart program will try to take another surprising step when it hosts Colorado State (3-1) on Saturday night. Kickoff is 7:30 on ESPNU.
The Vandals' offensive line consists of four seniors - a group that's “grown up together,” center Irvin Stevens III said - and sophomore Matt Cleveland, who has quickly adapted after missing last season with a broken leg.
Although Idaho's interior is crowded with vets, it doesn't necessarily have starter-savvy experience. Stevens replaced four-year stalwart Adam Korby at center. Right guard Adam Juratovac was a backup last year, and Bryce Sinclair alternated at right tackle before this season.
“We've all gotten to play,” Stevens said. “I think that's the biggest thing. It would be a different story if I wouldn't have gotten to play last year.”
The Vandals' mainstay and inside force is Iupati, a 6-foot-6, 330-pounder who has the potential to go in the first few rounds of next spring's NFL draft. The American Samoa native, via Anaheim, Calif., is the club's offensive captain and someone “the team looks up to quite a bit,” Finn said.
Iupati being at full health after missing time last year is a big reason why this might be the program's best offensive line in years. But Finn himself also has played a key role as an intense, unifying figure who's obsessed with the fundamentals of line play.
The 33-year-old former Northern Arizona standout is easily the Vandals' most animated coach during practices, often getting in his players' faces for simple errors. Finn's demeanor, though, takes a 180-degree turn in the film room, Stevens said.
“On the field he's a very fiery guy. In the office, he's a very calm, cool, collected guy,” the center said. “He talks to you. He lets you know what you've done wrong, what you're doing right.”
Vandals turning to Woolridge late
Idaho's tailback rotation still features a mixed bag of threats. But when it comes to the fourth quarter, DeMaundray Woolridge has shown a strong finishing kick, and coaches are rewarding him with more playing time.
He helped salt away the Vandals' 34-31 nail-biting win at Northern Illinois last week by being the featured guy in crunch time. The week before, Woolridge reeled off two fourth-quarter touchdowns to help fend off San Diego State.
“I think they're starting to have confidence in me as a game-finisher,” the Washington State transfer said of his coaches. “And it probably comes with me being a senior and knowing I have that senior urgency, that last-stand urgency.”
Around the WAC
Louisiana Tech's 27-6 thumping of Hawaii on Wednesday night illustrated just how jumbled the middle of the WAC should be this season. Every team but Idaho and Boise State now has two losses. … The WAC's desire to get exposure, no matter what day the conference has to play, is still evident. Tonight's Utah State-BYU affair will be the third straight week that the WAC has been featured on Friday night.
Extra injury note
The status of Idaho tight end Daniel Hardy is still up in the air. He didn't practice on Tuesday and Wednesday with an injury that coach Robb Akey has been reluctant to speak about. Jonah Sataraka, JoJo Dickson and Shiloh Keo -- all key defenders -- look they'll be able to play.