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Vandals’ mountain only gets higher

Idaho and Georgia Southern are both in their first seasons in the Sun Belt Conference -- well, in the Vandals' case, it's their first season back after a decade away. But that's a long enough absence to qualify Idaho as a newbie, given that no one connected with the program  has an attachment to the school's first tour through the league. 

In any case, the Eagles seem to have the hang of things already. The Vandals, not so much. The comparison gets a closer look this weekend when the Vandals make another cross-country trip to play the league-leaders in Statesboro.

For more on the Vandals, follow the link. 

 

Once upon a time -- it was 1990 -- the Vandals and Eagles met in the quarterfinals of what was then the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs, Georgia Southern escaping with a 28-27 victory. GSU was en route to the fourth of its six I-AA/FCS championships. And though there seemed to be regular reports of the Eagles planning a move up to the FBS ranks over the last 20 years, it was only last season when they began their transition. 

Idaho, of course, made its jump in 1996. Other than two wins in the Humanitarian Bowl, things haven't gone swimmingly. Which makes GSU's 3-0 start in their Sun Belt debut yet one more annoyance to Vandal fans who can't grasp what's taking their school so long to find any rhythm in FBS football.

Picked to finish eighth in the league's pre-season poll, the Eagles just missed upsetting North Carolina State and Georgia Tech in early season tests. Since then, they've beaten South Alabama, Appalachian State (also in its first Sun Belt season) and New Mexico State. 

"We have to beat them," said Idaho coach Paul Petrino, "or they might run the table."

He says that because the schedule maker dealt the Eagles a favor -- they don't play either of the Sun Belt favorites, Louisiana-Lafayette or Arkansas State. 

This under a new coach, Willie Fritz, who cranked up the Sam Houston State program into an FCS power before succeeding Jeff Monken, who took over at Army. 

The Eagles' spread option attack is the NCAA top rushing offense at better than 375 yards a game, and while the Vandals had their moments in dealing with Texas State's option game in a heartbreaking 35-30 loss last week, they continued to give up crushing big plays -- three TSU touchdowns came on runs of 70 yards or longer. It's been a season-long issue for the Vandals. Opponents have scored six times on runs of 34 yards or more, and on four passes of 51 yards or longer. 

"Early in the year, it seemed to be happening when we were pressuring people," Petrino said. "We weren't getting into gaps the other night. They were on base calls -- we just didn't execute our assignments."

Now they'll have to contain speedy quarterback Kevin Ellison and running back Matt Breida, who each have rushed for more than 600 yards already this season.

In other Vandal matters:

-- Aside from giving up big plays, the Vandals have been buried by slow starts -- they've been outscored 117-50 in the first half this year, a carryover from 2013. The good news: they have a 40-27 edge over opponents in the third quarter, a dramatic jump from a year ago when they only scored 30 third-quarter points all season. 

"We're doing a better job as a staff adjusting and correcting things," Petrino said. "The players know the offense and defense better and understand it -- but we have to play better in the first half."

That's execution -- but it's also belief, and confidence. 

"They've got to step on that field and believe from the get-go that we're good enough to win," he said. "Our players should think they've proven to themselves that they play with teams in this league. Now they have to step up and find a win to get a win."

-- A shakeup got the Vandals' running game back in gear against TSU. Petrino started Kris Olugbode, who responded with 80 yards on 13 carries. Freshman Aaron Duckworth added 63 on 12 carries, and Elijhaa Penny 41 more. That puts Jerrel Brown -- who didn't make the trip to Texas State for what Petrino called "an internal matter" on the back end of the rotation. 

So what happened? 

Petrino admitted that after the Vandals struggled in the "critical zone" in the first half, they were able to finish drives because he did a better job of play-calling and sticking to the run in those situations after intermission. 

"I think we came up with a game plan of a few (runs) we were going to work really hard all week and execute them," he said. "We repped them over and over and then we called them over and over. That helped both our line and our backs. We ran harder and blocked it better."

Petrino said Duckworth "has a chance to be a star around here for years to come. Sometimes you get nervous as a coach putting that freshman in there (wondering) will he know what to do if I call this. But you just have to do it."

-- While Petrino thinks the staff has been able to develop better depth across the board, what you see when the Vandals send out their starting defensive line is pretty much what you'll get. Prized JC recruit Alfonso Hampton wasn't able to get eligible, costing Idaho a potential impact player in the middle, but it hasn't stopped there. 

"We've had so many injuries," said Petrino. "We had two junior college tackles come in (Max Martial and Glen Antoine) and both are hurt. Will Schmidt and Zach Cable are out for the whole year. Those are four guys who can't even practice -- that hurts our scout team and our depth in practice. Unfortunately, we can't get anybody new in free agency or something."

--- Receiver Josh McCain, the converted quarterback who was moved to his new position last spring, has been added to the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, honoring the nation's top receiver. He's leading the Sun Belt in receiving yards per game (113.6) and receiving touchdowns (6). 

You can take in Petrino's entire weekly news conference here:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




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

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