SEATTLE – Consider it a sign of the improving outlook for the University of Idaho football team that it could lose its first two games, lose its starting running back to injury – not to mention two top tight ends, a starting defensive tackle and a starting offensive tackle – and still be talking about knocking off Washington.
And not evoke outright laughter on the west side of the state.
“I think they are a good team and they’re talented at the receiver spot,” first-year UW coach Tyrone Willingham said. “They are very solid and they offer a nice change-up and their defense plays very hard. They are definitely going to come in here thinking they can win.”
Never mind that it hasn’t happened in, oh, 100 years when the Vandals claimed an 8-0 win over Washington. Never mind that Jayson Bird, who ran for 859 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns last year, is out for the season after breaking his collarbone last week. Never mind that tight end Luke Smith-Anderson, another key playmaker, was lost for the season in preseason camp and Eddie Williams (knee) is probably out for another week. Defensive tackle Siua Musika (knee) and offensive tackle Hank Therien (neck) didn’t make the trip.
“I think we realize how hard we’ve worked to this point, how hard of spring we had, the lifting weights, running, conditioning,” quarterback Steve Wichman said. “We had a good spring, good fall and good summer when most of the guys stayed around. When we think about what we’ve done to this point, there’s no reason we can’t go into game day and expect to win some games.”
Idaho is a 13.5-point underdog, down considerably from 27 points in 2003, 30.5 in 2002 and 23.5 in 2001. Of course, the struggling Huskies (0-2), who finished 1-10 last year, have something to do with the point spread.
UW blew a fourth-quarter lead in losing to Air Force, and then got pummeled at home by Cal 56-17 in front of 57,775, the smallest crowd at Husky Stadium in 19 years. The Huskies have only committed one turnover and quarterback Isaiah Stanback has been effective. However, the defense has allowed an average of 491 yards per game. Opponents have a 56 percent conversion rate on third downs.
The Huskies media guide features a picture of Willingham with the slogan “Return of the Dawgs,” but thus far it’s looked a lot like 2004.
“I knew that it was difficult coming in,” Willingham said. “A lot of you guys (in the media) even told me that when I came in.”
Still, it’ll be a tall order for the Vandals to pull off the upset. Though they’ve had stretches of quality defense, they’ve still yielded an average of 199.5 yards rushing and 240 yards passing. The offense perked up last Saturday when Wichman passed for 390 yards.
“He was able to be so explosive with 19 completions and he really wasn’t forcing the ball,” quarterbacks coach Jonathan Smith said. “That’s what we’re asking of him – when the play is there make it, but don’t make a bad play worse.”
Rolly Lumbala, who is battling a knee injury, and speedy Antwaun Sherman will probably see the bulk of the carries, with Ashanti Hicks and true freshman Jason Brown seeing spot duty. Brown, who played safety in Idaho’s opener against Washington State, is an intriguing prospect.
Idaho has been stung by slow starts and penalties in its first two games. The Vandals allowed long touchdown runs in the opening minutes in both games. The penalties, including several silly personal fouls, also blunted UI’s momentum.
The Vandals will have their hands full with the mobile Stanback and Louis Rankin, who rushed for 112 yards in his first career start against Air Force.
“I’m sure they’ll look at (the UNLV) tape and look to incorporate some quarterback running plays,” assistant head coach Jeff Mills said.
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