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Vandals still looking for 2014 breakthrough

The improvements are there to be seen on the field, though most are  incremental. But Idaho coach Paul Petrino and his Vandals are starting to get a little desperate to see the real payoff: in the win column.

Now 0-3 -- and 1-14 under Petrino since he became head coach for the 2013 season -- the Vandals, Petrino said, are "a couple plays away from being 2-1. That's what's a little frustrating, but it gives you great encouragement for the future.

"But, gosh dang, we need to have it start happening."

The link below will take you to more on the Vandals. 

The Vandals get another crack at having it happen at home on Saturday, when they return to Sun Belt Conference play against South Alabama in the Kibbie Dome. Kickoff is 2 p.m.

It doesn't figure to be an easy task. The Jaguars were picked to finish third in the Sun Belt in the coaches' pre-season poll, and Petrino still believes they have the most talented league in the team, despite an upset loss to newcomer Georgia Southern that dropped them to 1-2, a record that also includes a loss to Mississippi State.

"You watch that Mississippi State team and their defense was three-and-out, three-and-out -- and then Mississippi State's quarterback makes a great play. You watch it on film and study it and it makes you nervous. (Mississippi State) didn't get many first downs, it's just that their quarterback made some great plays."

Idaho quarterback Matt Linehan has been making some great plays, too. But in last week's 36-24 loss at Ohio, his day included three interceptions, two of them leading to 10 Bobcats points and the last snuffing out any Vandal hopes. But Petrino wasn't ready to call the freshman's day a step back.

"The first interception was a tipped ball, so that had nothing to do with him," Petrino said. "The second was an 'all go' and they dropped eight people, and they were real deep so he needed to just take off and run. The third one, I'll put on me. I shouldn't have called that in that situation.

"He throws for 350 yards and competed his tail off. Some people just look at the numbers, and it could be two guys ran the wrong route or something else happened. People want to blame it all on the quarterback and sometimes it's his fault. In those instances, two weren't his fault and one he has to grow and learn from."

Linehan leads the Sun Belt in total offense and passing yards (346.3 per game, which is also sixth nationally, making him one of two freshmen in the top 30), is completing just shy of 60 percent of his passes and has eight touchdowns. With four different targets ranking among the Sun Belt's top seven in receptions per game, the Vandals lead the league in passing offense. But after a promising start against Louisiana-Monroe, with Jerrel Brown rushing for 117 yards, UI's running game has slipped dramatically, and now ranks last with just 75.7 yards per game.

"We need to get it back a little bit," Petrino said. "I felt at times (at Ohio) we had a good rhythm and Elijhaa (Penny) was running strong. We had times when we had runs called and they were blitzing quite a bit and we checked out of them. We need to run the ball better to keep the pressure off Matt."

And score. One big turning point in the game came when Penny was turned back on a fourth-and-goal run from the Ohio 1-yard line just before the end of the first half. 

"It was kind of just a gut instinct," said Petrino. "We hadn't been stopped on short yardage all year. Elijhaa had gotten every short-yardage situation we had, and I just felt like we were going to get it. I look back and maybe I should have kicked the field goal. But to be honest, if it happened again, I'd do the same thing. You've got one yard to go, you've got to get it."

On other fronts:

--- It's Dad's Weekend at Idaho, and the football team is certainly getting into the act. Nine Vandals players have dads who also played football at Idaho, while receiver Deon Watson's father was a standout basketball player. The other nine: Linehan (father Scott was also a high-production quarterback, and now passing game coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys), Zach Cable (Tom, former UI coach and now line coach with the Seattle Seahawks), Trent Cowan (Dave), Tom Hennessey (Tom), Nolan Hoiness (Todd), Mike Marboe (Scott), Byron Mitchell (Barry) and Isaiah Saunders (Walter).

On the injury front:

--- The Vandals played without safety Jordan Grabski, who is likely to miss this weekend's game, as well. Russell Siavii earned some kind words from his coach who said he "ran around and played hard" as Grabski's relief. Guard Jordan Rose hopes to be back for South Alabama, but had yet to return to practice as of Tuesday.

Statistics of note:

--- Receiver Josh McCain is tops in the Sun Belt and third nationally with five receiving touchdowns, an seventh nationally in yards receiving per game at 123.7.

--- Sophomore Austin Rehkow continues to boom punts. His 47.0 average, second in the Sun Belt, is sixth in the NCAA. The Central Valley grad is also 3-of-3 on field goals and 10-of-10 on PATs.

More from Petrino in the video below:

 




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

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