Idaho kicks off tonight at 6 p.m. at the Kibbie Dome. The opponent? The Ohio Bobcats, a member of #MACtion.
So what will I be looking for as I observe from my perch in the Bob Curtis Press Box?
The pressure is on the redshirt sophomore, to an extent. Much has been made of media criticisms over the fall (too much, really). Here's the bottom line: Linehan has demonstrated an ability to throw the ball all over the field. He's a third-year player and is not going to have perfect touch on every throw, especially deep balls, but he's a good quarterback capable of winning at this level. Now, he has to improve on his performance from last year because 18 interceptions in nine starts is not an acceptable number if he is going to continue to start. Linehan knows that just as well as you, I, or anybody else. Redshirt freshman Jake Luton became a media sweetheart this fall with his rocket arm and ability to make every throw on the field. Idaho coach Paul Petrino has not dismissed the idea of Luton seeing the field tonight or at some point this year , but to be fair, he has eluded to potential injuries and needing to have arms ready to go in this day and age of college football as one of those reasons. But if Linehan struggles in the first half and can't protect the ball, when might Luton see the field?
For the record, I don't anticipate Linehan struggling to that extent. But it's something we need to be aware of.
How about keeping Linehan upright
Linehan was sacked 39 times last year. Now, let's break that down. Linehan started 10 games, and Idaho only played 11. He wasn't able to get sacked by Florida ... because Idaho only saw one play against the Gators. Linehan didn't play the entirety of the New Mexico State game because he left after the first drive with a concussion. Linehan didn't start against San Diego State because he was benched after a five-turnover performance the week prior. And still, he was sacked 39 times.
The offensive line has huge shoes to fill without Mike Marboe and Jesse Davis on the line. Steven Matlock is a sure bet at center, while Dallas Sandberg will sit next to him at quick guard. The rest of the line is still a work in progress. I've been barred from attending practice so it's hard for me to make an assessment, but the Lewiston Tribune has an idea here.
Something to keep in mind is that Idaho does not tie linemen to specific spots on the line. It's the five best guys and then they're pegged into spots. Jordan Rose could play tackle or guard, as could Mason Woods. For example, Patrick Johnson worked as the back-up center in the spring but then filled in at guard with the first team when an injury occurred. Matlock and Sandberg are the only two guys tied to their positions on the line, from my perspective.
Can the ground game turn into big plays?
I read something pretty fascinating about Idaho's run game when going over advanced statistics presented by SBNation's Bill Connelly.
That is that Idaho has a ... very good run blocking offensive line.
Let me explain.
The advanced statistics with the offensive line break down the offensive line's role in successful runs and specifically how many yards the line contributes. Idaho ranked No. 43 in the nation in line-yards per carry on standard downs. The Vandals were a top-ten team in line yards on passing downs.
While there are explanations for this such as situations in games (teams aren't going to defend Idaho's running game on passing downs when up multiple scores), one is that the Vandals have a group of players on the line good at this run-blocking thing, as much as they struggle pass protecting.
Now, here's the negative. Running back highlight yards. A running back gets highlight yards on a running opportunity in which the line does its job by getting a running back five yards from the line of scrimmage. From there, everything else is credited to the back with highlight yards.
Elijhaa Penny had an opportunity rate of 32.6 percent, in which he only averaged 3.0 highlight yards per carry on runs of at least five yards. That's not very explosive, and Penny knows it. That's why he's dropped over 25 pounds with the hope of becoming a more explosive runner.
Can the secondary, you know, not give up huge plays?
We're going to use more statistics for this one. Last year Idaho ranked last in the nation giving up 9.45 yards per pass attempt. That's nearly a first down every time a quarterback simply moved his arm, on average. That's not good.
That's why Mike Breske is in Moscow running the defense now. His 3-4 system hopes to create more pressure on quarterbacks, thus making life easier for the guys in the back.
Speaking of the guys in the back, there's a whole lot of new faces back there. Armond Hawkins looks to be the starting safety today, making his transition from linebacker after he made the transition there from cornerback. He'll sit next to Russell Siavii, who did good amount of ball hawking in practice. Dorian Clark, Isaiah Taylor and Jayshawn Jordan will be the main faces at cornerback. Kendrick Trotter is also a name to watch, for me. He's a back-up safety right now but has the ability to move to corner if injuries or bad play forces him onto the field.
And just a quick blurb for the linebacker situation. Chris Edwards has the ability to cover from his SAM backer spot, especially considering his experience as a turnover-creating safety last season. That will free it up for Kaden Elliss and Marc Millan to create pressure from WILL, depending on whichever player is on the field at the time.