MOSCOW, Idaho – When the Idaho football team conjured up a breakthrough last year after a decade of losing, the Vandals had the luxury of banking on a solid-as-granite offensive line.
The same five players started every game, and four of them were seniors. From the start, no one questioned the group’s durability or consistency.
“I tell people all the time: Last year I was very, very spoiled,” offensive line coach Dan Finn said. “I had five guys that played every snap together through spring ball all the way to the bowl game. We didn’t have any injuries.”
Finn knew this season would be much more taxing than 2009, and that’s been the case since the start of spring camp. Injuries, inexperience, miscommunication – the Vandals (5-6) have dealt with these issues and more while breaking in four new starters up front.
Finally last week, in a 28-6 win at Utah State, the offensive line came together like Finn and coach Robb Akey had hoped they would all along. Quarterback Nate Enderle was sacked just once and the Vandals churned out their most rushing yardage (112) since Sept. 25 at Colorado State.
“I was happy with the fact that I think we ran the ball better,” Akey said, “and only getting put on the ground at quarterback one time was certainly an improvement. I thought we had more time to throw the ball consistently. … And I want to see us build off of that.”
With an unsettled and still-meshing O-line, the Idaho offense hasn’t been as high-powered or balanced as it was in ’09. Consider:
• The Vandals have yet to have a 100-yard rusher. Kama Bailey came the closest with 92 yards against Boise State, but he had two runs on fake punts that accounted for 39 and 54 yards.
• Last year the Vandals allowed 25 sacks in 13 games. This year they’ve given up 37 sacks, sixth most among FBS teams.
• UI is leaning much more on its passing game. Through 11 weeks, quarterback Nate Enderle has attempted 413 passes – 101 more attempts than he had last year in 11 games.
The biggest reason why Idaho has thrown 60.5 percent of the time this season – compared to 46.4 percent in ’09 – is because the rushing attack is averaging 3.1 yards per rush. But the Vandals have also fallen behind quickly against their toughest opponents and abandoned the ground game.
That wasn’t the case last week, and the Vandals prospered as a result.
“We had 37 carries,” Finn said. “You’re not going to be sacked when (your QB doesn’t) have the ball. That helps tremendously. When you don’t have 50, 60 pass attempts in a game, that helps out a lot.”
In contrast to last season’s veteran offensive line, this year’s unit has just two seniors – center Clell Hasenbank and right guard Tevita Halaholo – and has relied on redshirt freshman Jordan Johnson as the first reserve off the bench. With the inexperience comes flagging confidence, something Finn has noticed at different times.
But he’s also hopeful the Utah State performance will serve as a momentum-changer heading into a pivotal game Saturday night at Fresno State.
“If we get it done once, we can get it done every time,” right tackle Tyrone Novikoff said.