MOSCOW, Idaho – The first two weeks of Idaho’s bowl preparation were devoted almost exclusively to developmental work and nursing veterans back to full health. Bowling Green’s schemes and personnel, in fact, were scarcely mentioned.
But all that changed Wednesday. UI coaches rolled out the game plan during a frigid outdoor practice, and the Vandals’ focus on defense was abundantly clear.
“Certainly being aware of (Freddie Barnes) is important,” coach Robb Akey said, referring to the heralded BGU receiver.
Barnes leads the nation with 138 receptions and 16 touchdowns, and he is third with 1,551 yards. The 6-foot senior was a Biletnikoff Award finalist and will draw loads of attention – from UI coaches and fans at Bronco Stadium – in Wednesday’s Humanitarian Bowl in Boise.
Kickoff for the Vandals’ first postseason game since 1998 is 1:30 PST on ESPN.
Barnes is four receptions away from matching the single-season NCAA record, set by Manny Hazard of Houston in 1989. He’s kept piling up staggering numbers nearly every week, even with defenses geared to stop him.
“It’s not like it’s a secret,” Akey said. “People have been knowing that’s where the ball is going to go and … he and that quarterback (Tyler Sheehan) are still able to make things happen, so I’ve got a lot of respect for this kid.”
The Vandals’ beleaguered defense – ranked 114th in passing defense – has faced several elite receivers, including Hawaii’s Greg Salas and Boise State’s Austin Pettis. But Akey said there’s no question Barnes is the best wideout UI will match up against this season.
Barnes’ only subpar performance came against Boise State, when he was held to four catches for 24 yards.
Idaho quarterback Nathan Enderle has been slowly recovering his throwing shoulder that was injured twice this season. After Wednesday’s practice he said he should be 100 percent by next week.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s improving every day and that’s the most important thing,” the junior said.
More pressing for Enderle is getting back in sync with his receivers and tight ends. The Vandals have a 32-day layoff between a loss to Utah State and the H-Bowl.
“It does take a few days to kind of shake the rust off,” Enderle said, “but I think we do that pretty well and I expect us to be pretty crisp either tomorrow or the next day.”
Akey said the Vandals performed well in the classroom during the fall semester, meaning no one will miss the bowl because of poor grades … Redshirt tailback Troy Vital (shoulder) suffered the only injury of note since bowl preparations started, Akey said. “The way we’ve done things, guys have gotten healthier,” he said. A few players missed Wednesday’s practice because of sickness. … The Vandals will stay at the Best Western University Inn tonight, celebrate Christmas in the morning and fly out of Lewiston that afternoon.