We have so much on Idaho football and its home opener tonight vs. Eastern Washington that we're going to get right to it. Check out our Vandal season preview and primer at tonight's matchup after the jump.
Let's start with my look at Idaho and Eastern's first game since 2003. That 8-5 barnburner was the last time EWU beat an FBS team, and the last time Idaho lost to an FCS team. (Side note: In Robb Akey's first two years, the Vandals went 3-21, with two of those wins coming against FCS-level Idaho State and Cal Poly.) Eastern is ranked 12th and 15th in the preseason FCS polls, and as Robb Akey said, the Eagles have Idaho's attention.
Key question for tonight: Will Idaho transfer QB Dominique Blackman get his first start since 2009? He was named the starter two weeks ago after sitting out the last two seasons, but UI's student newspaper cited multiple sources earlier this week that said he won't start for undisclosed reasons. Robb Akey hasn't commented, and the Vandals' practices have been closed since Saturday. So there's a lot of mystery here. Blackman, however, indicated on his Twitter page (@vandalsQB3) that he's battling sickness this week. I talked yesterday with his aunt and surrogate mother, Pauline Moses, and she said she didn't know if Blackman would play. Moses said she originally was planning to come from L.A. for the game, but her plan changed. She's now hoping to go to the LSU game on Sept. 15.
For the S-R's monster football season preview, I also have a profile on Blackman and the tragedy in his life, a story on linebacker Homer Mauga's number change to honor his cousin Junior Seau and JIm Allen has this piece on Eastern's high-profile transfer QB, Kyle Padron.
You can find Idaho's story lines to follow here and I've included them below, too. First, here's a look at a few key games for the Vandals in 2012. In between tonight and the LSU matchup, they travel to Bowling Green next week. They play on the road three times in the first five weeks of the season -- all in the Eastern or Central time zones. Which makes tonight's game all the more important.
Tonight vs. Eastern Washington, 6 (ESPN3)
The Vandals remember last year’s clunker to open the season, a 32-15 loss to Bowling Green. After a turbulent offseason, a good start to 2012 would go a long way – both for the program and its fan base.
Sept. 15 at Louisiana State, 5 p.m. PDT
LSU is a powerhouse in the nation’s best conference. Idaho is a year away from the uncertain waters of FBS independence. This isn’t likely to be close after halftime, but the Vandals are getting $950,000 to play in Death Valley. Expect more similar big-name opponents (and payouts) the next two years with UI conference-less.
Nov. 24 at Utah State, noon PDT
This will be the last WAC football game for both teams, and the last time these developing rivals could play for some time. USU got what Idaho was hoping for this summer – an invite to the Mountain West. A win on the Aggies’ home field would be a nice consolation prize.
IDAHO STORY LINES
Following an abysmal 2011 for the Vandals’ offense, Robb Akey hired three new assistants and promoted Jason Gesser to coordinator. In just his second season as a college coach, Gesser will guide an offense with a quarterback who hasn’t played a game since 2009 (Dominique Blackman), a revamped receiving corps and at least two first-year starters on the offensive line. It’s hard to know what to expect from so many newcomers, but the Vandals will showcase more four- and five-receiver sets and should at least be more entertaining.
Adversity a motivation?
Few programs had a rougher offseason than Idaho. Wide receiver Ken McRoyal was shot and killed in May. The Mountain West opted against offering UI a spot in its conference, and the Sun Belt wasn’t interested either. All the bad news and low expectations on the field could end up galvanizing the team. The Vandals are hoping to avoid the fifth losing season in Robb Akey’s six-year tenure.
Punch at RB?
The Vandals’ ground game ranked 102nd in the nation last year, and tailback Ryan Bass wasn’t nearly the factor that many expected after transferring from Arizona State. But the senior is finally healthy (and in the clear academically). James Baker and Todd Handley will get carries, but Bass needs to be a go-to back for the Vandals to thrive.
Promise on young OL
In Idaho’s season opener, the left side of the offensive line will be manned by Cody Elenz and Dallas Sandberg. Both are promising, sturdy linemen. But both are also redshirt freshmen who have yet to take a snap in a game.
Does that worry first-year offensive line coach Gordy Shaw? Perhaps, but he’s not going to let youth dictate his approach.
“It wouldn’t be fair to the university or the fans or the football team if I wasn’t playing the best guys,” Shaw said. “And the players on the offensive line understand that. There’s no dispute – we talk about it every other day. (I ask them), ‘Is there anybody who disagrees with who’s starting, who’s playing the best?’
“… That whole left side right now,” Shaw added, “that will be their first college football game come (tonight). And I’m sure they’re going to be excited, and I’m sure they’re going to make some mistakes. But they’re the best players right now.”
Elenz, the Vandals’ left tackle, is a Texas native who had offers from UTEP, North Texas and other Texas schools, as well as Louisiana Tech. But he felt comfortable on his visit to Moscow, and he vaulted to the top of the depth chart this spring with three other UI tackles hurt.
Because of injuries, it ended up being a “double-dip spring,” as Shaw put it, for Elenz and Sandberg. “They basically had probably two springs in one just because of all the snaps they had to take,” the coach said.
The Vandals had relatively few injuries in fall camp, especially compared to last year, but they were still without key players for some or most of the preseason. The culprit this time: academic issues.
Defensive end Benson Mayowa, tailback Ryan Bass and tight end Taylor Elmo – all former or projected starters – missed practice time because of grades. Bass was back with the Vandals last week and is expected to be a key part of the offense. But Elmo has not been around the team and Mayowa had yet to finish the necessary schoolwork last week.
Coach Robb Akey wasn’t optimistic late last week that Mayowa would be cleared for the season opener.