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THURSDAY, SEPT. 3, 2009, 11:11 P.M.

Vandals prep for NMSU

The season is barely under way and the WAC has already acquitted itself quite well. Boise State suffocated Oregon in a 19-8 win (get ready for all the talk of BSU in a BCS game), and Utah State hung with No. 19 Utah for a while before getting shut out in the second half in a 35-17 loss.

But enough about other WAC teams. Keep reading for an early preview of Idaho's matchup with New Mexico State.

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Idaho vs. New Mexico State

Kickoff: at Memorial Stadium, Lac Cruces, N.M, 5 p.m.
Records
: UI 0-0; NMSU 0-0
TV/Radio
: SWX and Go Vandals TV Network)/1080-AM in C'dA/Spokane

Overview: A year ago, the Vandals started the season in the worst imaginable way – with a 70-0 thumping at Arizona. Nothing went right that night in the desert, and it didn’t get much better through the season.

So what has Idaho done differently to prepare for its season opener this time?

“Last year’s stuff … has been burned up,” UI coach Robb Akey said with a laugh. “I couldn’t tell you what we did. There’s nothing in similarity to what we did last year.”

Instead of opening against a staunch Pac-10 foe, the Vandals will take on a Western Athletic Conference opponent in NMSU that has had its own share of struggles since joining the WAC. The Aggies finished 2008 on a seven-game losing streak, which prompted the dismissal of Hal Mumme and hiring of former UCLA assistant DeWayne Walker.

This is Idaho’s 11th consecutive season starting away from the Kibbie Dome. The Vandals haven’t won their opener since 1999, which was their last winning campaign.

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Gameday coverage in the S-R has gotten tighten because of space constraints, but I'll try to include more web-only material here before Saturdays.

After a few jokes about last year's preparations for Arizona, Akey did turn serious for a moment. One positive, he said, is that Idaho has been in class for a full two weeks. Last year, the Vandals were dealing with the first week of classes when they trekked to Tucson. "That juggling act was taken care of then, so not they’re accustomed to going to school and playing football. I think that that has helped."

Akey also said he's tried to keep the players' bodies as fresh as possible. "One of things in my whole career that I’ve paid attention to is making sure that they’re bodies feel good. They quit feeling good by the third day in pads and they won’t feel good until January — late January hopefully."

That last comment was a reference to reaching a bowl game, a goal Akey has made clear is realistic for months now. If the Vandals are to stage a massive turnaround, the defense is going to have to show substantial improvement. There certainly seems to be a better vibe around the D, at least during fall camp.

Here's what linebacker Paul Senescall had to say: "This is not a new staff. We’ve been here a while, and it’s taken time. This is my fourth season ... and I think over time that this has really developed well and guys are kind of figuring things out."

Two huge questions about the defense: Can the front seven consistently stop the run? And can the secondary make strides? Both of these things will hinge on improved D-line play; if Aaron Lavarias, Andre Ferguson and Co. can cook up a consistent pass rush, the secondary will no doubt look better than what took place during an atrocious 2008. Also, stout interior play from Jonah Sataraka and others will be critical to forcing opponents to the air. 

Of course, the linebacking group is also important, and Akey likes the progress it has made. "Our starting linebacker corps I think is pretty good. And compared to whole of what we’ve had the last two years, I think this one should be better."

One new point of emphasis has been gang tackling. When I asked Senescall about things that have changed with the defense, it was the first thing he mentioned. "Running to the ball —  that’s one of the things you’re going to see change," Senescall said. "We’re going to all go to the ball. In the year’s past you've not really seen a lot of guys run to the ball; our coaches have really preached it to us and we’ve really adapted to that."




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