MOSCOW, Idaho – In most instances, a 2-9 team would not be expected to offer the sternest of tests in the opening game of the next season.
But with 21 players returning who started a game last year, Sacramento State could play above its 2016 record when it visits Idaho in the Kibbie Dome at 6 p.m. Thursday.
The key question: Did all those people coming back improve with playing experience or are they the same guys who couldn’t get it done last year?
Vandals coach Paul Petrino thinks it might be the former. The Hornets might be where Idaho was in 2015, when, after three one-win seasons, the Vandals improved to 4-8 and realized they could win games.
“They were in a lot of close games last year,” Petrino said. “One play here or there and they could have won six games.”
Idaho, by contrast, comes into 2017 with a five-game winning streak and a 9-4 record from last season, crowned by a 61-50 victory over Colorado State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
The momentum seems to have continued in preseason camp, where Petrino is generally satisfied with how the Vandals have prepared for this year. Senior quarterback Matt Linehan, with 2,129 yards, would become Idaho’s all-time passing leader, and one of his main targets, senior Jacob Sannon, was the star of camp.
“He’s been our best special teamer for three years, our best blocker, and now he’s taken a big step forward as a play maker,” Petrino said of Sannon.
A question going into this season is how well the Vandals can rebuild an offensive line depleted by graduation. Petrino cited senior offensive tackle Jordan Rose and sophomore guard Noah Johnson as camp standouts.
On defense, Idaho’s returning linebackers, juniors Kaden Elliss, Ed Hall and Tony Lashley, have continued their high-caliber play from a year ago. New kicker and punter Cade Coffey, a redshirt freshman, has spared Petrino sleepless nights contemplating how to replace four-year starter and All-America punter Austin Rehkow.
“From where he was in spring … he’s made the biggest improvement,” Petrino said of Coffey.
In the Hornets, Idaho will face receivers “as good as we’ll play against all year,” according to Petrino.
Receivers Andre Lindsey, Darius Armstead, Jaelin Ratliff, Johnnie Rucker, Alexis Robinson and Isiah Hennie “make short catches and can make you miss and go all the way,” Petrino added.
Sacramento State’s challenge is to find a quarterback who can get them the ball. Kolney Cassel, a senior transfer from SMU, and Kevin Thomson, a junior transfer from UNLV, are in a close battle to replace last year’s starter Nate Ketteringham, who transferred to North Dakota.
The defense is anchored by preseason All-Big Sky pick Ben Sorensen, a senior defensive end who led the Hornets with 11 tackles for loss and 5 1/2 sacks a year ago. Petrino also points out Sacramento State likes to play man-to-man press coverage in the secondary, which places heavy responsibility on cornerbacks such as junior Dre Terrell and senior Ernest Jenkins.
Big Sky coaches and media were unimpressed by the Hornets. Sacramento State was picked to finish 12th in the league in both polls.
But Petrino believes Idaho’s season-opening opponent is coached better than that, in part by a pair of coaches with long ties to the Palouse. Head coach Jody Sears is a Pullman High alum who played at Washington State and coached there from 2008-2011 on Paul Wulff’s staff.
Wulff, a former Cougars standout offensive lineman before serving as head coach at Eastern Washington University and WSU, is now Sears’ assistant head coach and offensive coordinator. “They’re doing a good job of coaching,” Petrino said.
Despite their record from a year ago, the Hornets are going to be ready to play hard, Petrino said.
“They know what they’re doing,” he said. “We have to play harder.”