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Defending option Idaho’s next challenge

While he continues to exhort his Vandals to keep grinding and do the little things that should, in time, allow them to pull the program out of its losing spiral, Idaho coach Paul Petrino also has to develop some game-changers. He's found one in Austin Rehkow. Problem is, he doesn't play a marquee position like quarterback or linebacker. He's the punter -- the live-to-fight-another-day position. 

Still, the sophomore from Central Valley kept matters from getting a lot worse in a hurry during last Saturday's 34-10 loss to South Alabama when the Vandals' offense decided to go south for the first time this year. Yes, he missed a couple of field goals that could have kept things closer, too, but field goals weren't going to save Idaho on this day -- and the field position Rehkow's punts provided at least allowed the Vandals to hang in there, whether it was false hope or not.

For more on Rehkow and the Vandals, follow the link.

 

 

 

The good news from the 0-4 Vandals' camp on Tuesday was Rehkow being named the Ray Guy Award's national punter of the week for an afternoon that saw him average 49.8 yards on six punts. 

Many of those were works of art -- towering kicks that continually foiled T.J. Glover, the Jaguars' punt returner. It was a minor amusement (in a game that begged for them) after Rehkow boomed his first punt 56 yards, to be downed at the USA 9, to see Glover set up 10 yards further back the next time Idaho's punt team team the field. Rehkow promptly thumped one 53 yards to the USA 12. In all, four of his six kicks were downed inside the Jags' 20. Glover managed to return just one of them, for seven yards.

Rehkow earned the same weekly honor once last year, when he led the nation's punters and earned a spot on the Walter Camp Team. He's also on the season watch list for the Guy award, which honors the nation's top collegiate punter.

But his expression as he sat on the Idaho bench during the fourth quarter made it clear Rehkow was beating himself up a little over those two missed 40-yard field goals, both ugly looking hooks.

"His plant foot was too close to the ball on those two he missed," said Petrino. "He just has to get back and concentrate and have a definite routine. He's been kicking the ball great in practice -- we didn't see those coming at all. And he made great strides on his kickoffs. He had way more hang time and was kicking deeper. And he's had a great year punting. He's just got to put that game behind him and be confident he'll put the ball through."

Odds and ends from Petrino's weekly press briefing:

--- The Vandals get a different kind of test this Saturday when they head back on the road and visit Texas State (2-2) in the Hill Country town. The Bobcats are coached by Dennis Franchione, who about a decade ago was one of college football's hot numbers. Then he made sketchy exits from TCU and Alabama and got sideways with good judgment -- and didn't win enough -- at Texas A&M, and spent four seasons on the sidelines before resurfacing in San Marcos in time to take the Bobcats from FCS to FBS status. Mostly, they've been treading water around the .500 mark but, hey, there's a football program in Moscow that would settle for that.

And the Bobcats are coming off an emotional 37-34 triple overtime win at Tulsa, bouncing back from a near-miss against Illinois. Read more about that here.

Franchione's option-centric offense is the challenge for Idaho's defense, which made a few strides even in falling to South Alabama. The Bobcats are second in the Sun Belt Conference in rushing behind the little machine at Georgia Southern. with not quite half of their 505 yards per game coming on the ground. But Tyler Jones is the SBC's most efficient passer, so the Vandals can't sell out against the run.

"They come up with a lot of different ways to run the triple option out of the shotgun," Petrino said. "They'll give you a lot of different looks. We've got to be very disciplined and take care of our job -- and then tackle. That's probably the biggest thing. They'll try to get you one-on-one."

--- Petrino insisted that "if you watch the defensive tape, they took a big step forward" against South Alabama -- the exceptions being three big plays by USA quarterback Brandon Bridge. But the offense never found any room or rhythm, thanks to an intense pass rush by the visitors and assorted mistakes, like the bad route choice receiver Josh McCain made that turned a Matt Linehan pass into a pick six. The game had all but been decided by the third quarter, but when a subtly crushing blow was the 17-play drive the Vandals put together that produced just three points. Linehan, after three 300-yard games to open his college career, was limited to 239 on 25-40 passing and was sacked seven times. 

"If you're not get protection up front, it doesn't matter if you're Tom Brady, you're going to struggle," Petrino said. "I think Matt's played great. We've got to take care of him. We can't let him get hit as much as we did last weekend. But I don't think his confidence is hurt one bit."

Almost always on the run, Linehan wasn't able to spread the ball around to his receivers as well as he had in his first three games. McCain and Richard Montgomery had eight catches apiece, but tight end Justin Podrabsky had just two and Deon Watson was limited to one for nine yards.

"They had a plan to come in and try to take away our tight end -- they were doubling him at times," Petrino said. "And there were a couple plays where some (receivers) didn't win, or Matt didn't have time to see them to get them the ball."

--- After Jerrel Brown ran for 117 yards in the season opener, the running back spot has turned into a lottery. All four regular backs got a crack Saturday and "all of them have got to pick it up and play better running the ball," Petrino said. He did say that pass protection has improved when Elijhaa Penny, the 250-pound load, is back there with Linehan.

--- On the injury front, guard Jordan Rose returned to practice Monday and Petrino said the big freshman could make a big difference if he's able to get back in the lineup against Texas State. Petrino pegged safety Jordan Grabski's chances of playing at "80 percent," but it's likely the Vandals will be without freshman receiver David Ungerer, who sustained a shoulder injury after on a long reception in the fourth quarter. 

--- Despite the record, Petrino was adamant that the Vandals are making strides forward.

"(Texas State's) defensive coordinator came from Arkansas State last year, so I've been watching a bunch of tape the last two days, and when you watch last year's tape and then see where we are right now, it's night and day. We're a way better team right now. We're still digging out of that hole. We've still got to get on top of it and get to the point where we win games. There's no doubt in my mind that's going to happen," he said. 

--- Sure, the record is 0-4, but the season hasn't been without highlights. Check out the reel Idaho's video personnel put together before the USA game. 

The entirety of Petrino meeting the press:

 




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

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