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Vandals take a step out of the Sun Belt

Ah, the November out-of-conference game, college football's favorite non-sequitur. Nothing quite gets the blood running hot like facing  what should have been a September opponent two months later.

The Idaho Vandals (1-7) step out of the Sun Belt Conference this Saturday but stay very much in the sun, with a trip to play San Diego State (4-4) at 3:30 p.m. at Qualcomm Stadium. So there's a chance to play in an NFL stadium to jazz up the date, and there's a little family reunion to add sub-text. And, of course, the Vandals will be trying to live down their nightmarish fourth quarter against Arkansas State last weekend.

For more on the Vandals, the link below will take you to page 2.

 

Don't think Elijhaa Penny has had one date on his calendar circles for a while? OK, well, perhaps for another reason, too.

The Vandals' junior running back is heading back to the home country this weekend, but his family will have split loyalties come Saturday afternoon. There will be two Pennys worth when Idaho and SDSU meet -- Elijhaa in the lineup for the Vandals, and younger brother Rashaad for the Aztecs. 

Both are graduates of Norwalk High School up the freeway in the Los Angeles area. Both seem to be hitting their stride just in time for this meeting. And both probably feel they have a little more at stake than their teammates for a game that doesn't count in anyone's conference standings. 

"That's really exciting for him to go back and play against his brother," Idaho coach Paul Petrino said. "Got to have a big game. They're going to be talking about it every year at Thanksgiving from here until forever, so he's got to make sure he has a big game against them."

Penny is the Vandals' second leading rusher behind Jerrel Brown with 368 yards, but 121 of those game last weekend against Arkansas State on just 16 carries. It was a game that saw Penny break out of his type-casting a bit. At 6-foot-2 and 248 pounds. Penny's worth as a red-zone blaster is obvious -- he has nine touchdowns this year, the longest a 10-yarder, the average being 3. But against the Red Wolves, he cut loose for runs of 9 (twice), 10, 12, 14, 16 and 27 yards. 

"He got dinged up in fall camp, but he never sat out -- he just fought through it,"  Petrino said. "He's healthier now, plus he's been losing a little weight each week and that's making him more explosive."

Little brother, meanwhile, has been making himself useful for the Aztecs as their top kickoff returner, as he waits his turn behind more experienced backs. But the true freshman did get his first carry from scrimmage in last weekend's loss to Nevada and reeled off a 21-yard gain.

The Vandals recruited Elijhaa out of Cerritos College, where he rushed for 1,338 yards and scored 20 touchdowns (he'd spent his freshman year at College of the Sequoias). And they well aware of Rashaad, too, who wound up picking SDSU over a slew of Mountain West Conference rivals. 

"We were looking at him," Petrino said. "But I made the statement to our coaches -- because we'd been on Elijhaa hard -- let's make sure he knows he's the one we want. We were a little late on his brother. That was really my decision -- go hard on (Elijhaa) and let his brother go where he goes. We thought his brother was going to Boise (State) then." 

-- Matt Linehan's worst collegiate start has apparently returned Idaho's quarterback competition back to the general neighborhood it was in from last spring through fall camp. Petrino hasn't announced a starter and insisted both Linehan and Chad Chalich will play at Qualcomm.

"They'll probably get more even reps this week (in practice) and go into the game and do whatever gives our team the best chance to win," Petrino said. 

Linehan completed just 11 of 23 passes against ASU and threw three interceptions in addition to fumbling twice. Chalich was 6-of-9 in relief for 113 yards, but also threw a costly fourth-quarter pick when the Vandals were in the process of melting down. 

-- Among all the turnovers (eight against ASU), penalties (including three unsportsmanlike conduct flags, one against the coach himself) and the Vandals general fourth-quarter pratfall, one particularly stellar effort was all but overlooked -- linebacker Marc Millan's 18-tackle performance, including five for loss. 

"That was good to see," Petrino said. "Marc gives great effort. The biggest thing he needs to understand is you take one play at a time. He gets into trouble when he tries to do everybody's job. He just needs to make sure he does his job and has his gap and his responsibility." 

-- The Aztecs average 216.1 yards per game on the ground, and they're not in a hurry to do that. Petrino figures the game "will be about an hour and a half shorter," considering the Vandals are putting more emphasis on the run, too. "It'll probably be more in the range of a 24-21 game," he offered.

-- Defensive end Maxx Forde was wearing a walking boot early in the week and his status for Saturday is questionable. Safety Jordan Grabski appears to be out for the season, according to Petrino. 

Here's some video from Petrino's weekly press briefing:

 




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John Blanchette
John Blanchette is a freelance columnist who writes about local sports issues.

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