MOSCOW, Idaho – The observation came from Max Komar, a senior whose words carry some definite weight. He’s been a part of Idaho football for four years, after all, so he knows a thing or two about the Vandals’ recent travails.
Especially on the offensive side of the ball.
“Last year you saw big plays happen so rarely (with) our offense,” Komar said this week.
That’s not the case so far in 2009 for a program that looks to be awaking from a decade-long slumber. In fact, the roots of the Vandals’ early success can be traced, in part, to a downfield passing game that is suddenly flourishing.
One telling number for Idaho (2-1) as it enters Saturday’s non-conference matchup at Northern Illinois (2-1) is quarterback Nathan Enderle’s yards per attempt. Last year he averaged a meager 6.1 yards for every throw, and this season it’s spiked to 8.2.
Komar is a big reason why. The 5-foot-11 Auburn, Wash., product has been UI’s most productive receiver, and most of his 257 yards have come in meaty chunks. He’s averaging 21.4 yards per catch, easily the best among a burgeoning wide receiver unit.
“His maturity, his experience is really helping him out,” Enderle said of his veteran target. “I feel comfortable with him out there. Being with him for three years now, I really know what he’s doing, what he’s thinking. And it helps us connect sometimes when other receivers wouldn’t be able to make the same play.”
That comfort level has come not just from experience, but also from diligent work over the summer. Komar, in particular, focused on refining his route running – a trait vital to receivers who spend most of their time in the slot.
“We’re pretty much on the same page with me in the slot,” Komar said. “Last year I wasn’t in the slot very much, but all the work we put in the offseason and during fall camp, we just got used to me in the slot.”
With the departure of all-Western Athletic Conference H-back Eddie Williams, the Vandals have opted for more three- and four-wideout sets over two tight-end formations. That’s enabled Komar to see the field more and offensive coordinator Steve Axman to look for ways to crank out bigger yardage through the air.
In Axman’s book, big plays account for at least 10 yards. The Vandals had 15 such plays in last week’s win over San Diego State and 17 at Washington.
Part of the improvement from a woeful 2008 campaign is more freedom given to Enderle to change calls at the line of scrimmage. Last year he stuck mostly with run-play audibles, but now it’s not uncommon to see him barking changes for several seconds in pass formations.
The early results are nice, Komar said, but he’s more interested in the ultimate prize for the Vandals – a long-awaited bowl berth.
Around the WAC
While the Vandals have been a pleasant surprise, it hasn’t been pretty for much of the WAC. Take away Idaho, Boise State and Hawaii, and the combined record of conference members is 3-13. … San Jose State (0-3) appears to have a nice respite this week by playing lower-division Cal Poly after facing USC, Utah and Stanford. But coach Dick Tomey isn’t so sure. “It’s an even game going in,” he said. … Idaho is showing that a good recipe for improvement is standing out is rush defense and turnover margin. The Vandals lead the WAC in both categories.