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Homecoming is Idaho’s chance to break nation’s longest losing streak

The obvious bad news for Idaho last weekend was the 47-24 thumping from Sun Belt Conference leader Georgia Southern. The kicker was that back East, Massachusetts went on the road and blasted Kent State 40-17 to end a 12-game losing streak -- leaving the Vandals alone with the nation's longest FBS losing streak of 13 games.

Better news: it's homecoming for quarterback Matt Linehan (pictured above) and the Vandals.

And the opponent is in something of a tailspin itself. New Mexico State, the Vandals' old partner in the late, lamented football collective of the Western Athletic Conference, comes to Moscow for the 2 p.m. Saturday game, reeling from five straight defeats after a pair of wins to open the season. 

For more on the Vandals, follow the link below.

 

Idaho's bad news didn't stop with another loss, however.

Coach Paul Petrino confirmed on Tuesday that hard-hitting safety Chris Edwards "has left the team."

Edwards had come to Idaho from Butte Junior College in California, where his team had shared the NJCAA national title. He had been characterized by Petrino in the fall as a potential impact player, prized for his size (6-foot-2, 217 pounds) and hitting ability. And he immediately cracked the starting lineup. He was also responsible for two of Idaho's four interceptions through the first five games, though there were times he struggled with coverages and responsibilities. He did not make the trip to Georgia Southern last week, where senior Tom Hennessey started in his place and recorded seven tackles. Petrino said JC recruit Doyin Sule will also be called upon. 

In any case, it can hardly be a help to Idaho's defense, ranked last in the Sun Belt in yards allowed (497 per game) and next-to-last in points allowed (39) and pass efficiency defense.  Another starting safety, Jordan Grabski, has been sidelined with a bad ankle since game 2, though the Vandals have been getting a lift from Russell Siavii's play.

And on Saturday, they'll have to deal with Teldrick Morgan, whose 53 receptions lead the Sun Belt, though he trails Idaho's Josh McCain in yards per game. 

--- The Aggies opened the season with wins over Big Sky member UC Davis and Sun Belt colleague Georgia State, but then ran into some hard luck in the Interstate 25 Cup, losing to rivals UTEP and New Mexico. Then came a blasting at LSU and a loss at home to Georgia Southern. In the process, the Aggies have shown themselves to be even more porous against the run that Idaho, surrendering 332 yards a game on the ground. 

-That might sound promising for Idaho's hit-and-miss running game. After getting three strong performances from backs against Texas State, Petrino pushed all his chips in behind Elijhaa Penny last Saturday, and he responded with a 75-yard, three-touchdown day. Petrino said Kris Olugbode, UI's leading rusher the week before, missed the Georgia Southern game with a shoulder injury. Penny's power down near the goal line is a true asset, but Petrino a week ago said he'd like to see the JC recruit "lose about seven pounds in his rear end" and kept up with that theme Tuesday.

"I'd like to see him lose about two pounds each week," Petrino said. "It would give him more explosiveness on long runs."

--- Linehan's progress at quarterback could be characterized as "freshman fitful." The son of ex-Vandal great Scott Linehan has thrown for more than 300 yards in four of his six starts, and is 12th in the country in that department. But his 11 interceptions are also tied for second nationally behind the 13 of NMSU's Tyler Rogers, and what's worse they've been untimely to the max.

Six of those interceptions have come in the fourth quarter, including a game-turning pick 6 in the Georgia Southern game. Outside of the South Alabama blowout, the Vandals were still in the hunt at the time. But but even some of those picks that came earlier in games led to big swings, though that underscores the vulnerability of Idaho's defense and the team's slim margin of error as much as it does Linehan's timing. Four first half interceptions led to opponent touchdowns or field goals, though some of those came on big plays. And there was a first-quarter pick 6 in that USA game, too.

All in all, just part of the package when a first-time collegiate starter is getting on-the-job training. 

"You've got to learn from every one of them," Petrino said of the interceptions, "and I think they've all been they kind of different situations. Last week, he was just trying to make a great play -- and it was too bad, because the play we called, we had Richard (Montgomery) on a defensive end on a wheel (route) about five yards in front of the guy. If we score there, that cuts it to a two-point game. But he just didn't quite have the time. He stepped up, Deon (Watson) was his check down and he tried to make a great play. And those are the plays that he makes so you don't want to take away from him, but sometimes you've got to bite it, take the sack or throw it away. But you've also got to keep remembering that he's just a freshman, and he's given us a chance in all these games."

--- Idaho and NMSU have been conference mates since 1995 in three different leagues -- four if you count their year as fellow independents in 2013. The Aggies were in the Big West when Idaho came aboard in 1996, moved together to the Sun Belt (2001) and WAC (2005) and then back to the Sun Belt this year. If that's supposed to make them Idaho's rival, 1,130 miles between the two campus say otherwise, and Petrino wasn't having much of that anyway.

"Everyone in the league we have to make become a rival," he said, dismissing the notion that there's any more emotion attached to this game. "We've got to make them all rivalries."

Petrino's weekly press conference:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




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

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