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Idaho defense lacking swagger in losses

Lyle Fitte, right, and Louisiana Tech spent much of last Saturday running away from Idaho’s defense.  (Associated Press)
Lyle Fitte, right, and Louisiana Tech spent much of last Saturday running away from Idaho’s defense. (Associated Press)

MOSCOW, Idaho – From the moment trends started to crystallize in spring camp through the first three weeks of the season, the Idaho Vandals were sure of one thing about their defense: It was playing with a boldness and energy that had been absent for years.

The new defensive mentality was evident for a while. But somewhere between the second half of a numbing loss to Colorado State and last week’s meltdown at Louisiana Tech, the defense’s confidence has given way to a flurry of questions.

“We’ve got to play with a swagger,” safety Shiloh Keo said. “That’s one thing we started developing this past spring is a swagger, a mentality out here on this field that hey, whoever we face – whether it’s our own team or an opponent – you’re not going to gain a yard on us. That’s one thing that we need to bring back.

“I think it’s gone away a little bit the past few weeks, really.”

The 3-3 Vandals started the season by shutting out North Dakota, offering hints of promise at Nebraska and holding UNLV to 187 yards and a late touchdown. But in the last three weeks, they’ve allowed 32.3 points a game.

Defensive coordinator Mark Criner said much of the inconsistency is related to tackling, turnovers and third downs. Outside of forcing fumbles, the Idaho defense didn’t receive high marks from coaches in any of those categories after the 48-35 drubbing at Louisiana Tech.

“Quite frankly, how do we tackle so well against Nebraska and we don’t against La. Tech?” Criner said. “That’s the magic question.”

Criner and Idaho coach Robb Akey this week questioned their players’ mindset against the Bulldogs, particularly after the Vandals gave up a touchdown on fourth down to relinquish the lead late in the second quarter.

“When we play physical and we play flying around with confidence, we’re good,” Akey said. “When we don’t play that way, that has been when we have not performed well.”

The defense has been dominant at times this season. Yet the progress from 2009 has been countered by puzzling second-half efforts against CSU and LTU, both of which had offenses that were floundering before playing Idaho.

Saturday, the Vandals will host New Mexico State, an opponent that comes to Moscow at an ideal time for the UI defense. The Aggies (1-5) are 118th out of 120 FBS teams in scoring offense and 116th in total offense.

But the Vandals will have to rebound without senior cornerback Isaac Butts, a starter who did not play at Louisiana Tech and was dismissed from the team for undisclosed reasons.

The Vandals have had no problem picking up chunks of yardage with the Nate Enderle-led passing attack. But their running game has regressed – from 165 yards per game last year to an average of less than 90 yards this season.

The struggles have been most glaring in short-yardage situations.

“We didn’t move the line of scrimmage (last week),” Akey said. “Earl Campbell running through that wall, it’s going to be hard to bang through that dang thing. We’ve got to get it moved out a little bit better.”

Akey’s take on BSU

Akey told a Boise radio station on Wednesday that he was one of 11 members of the USA Today coaches poll to put Boise State No. 1 on his ballot. But that shouldn’t come as a huge surprise – Akey, when asked, has been spoken glowingly of the Broncos this season.

“This football team they have now is probably the best they have had in the history of that school,” he said.

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