MOSCOW, Idaho – If you haven’t paid close attention this fall, you might be wondering how the Idaho Vandals went from 10- and 11-loss seasons – four of them in a row before 2015 – to bowl eligibility.
What is the previously hapless football program doing now that it didn’t or couldn’t do for years?
You can point to many things, but South Alabama coach Joey Jones – whose team will face Idaho at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Kibbie Dome – thinks he has the answer.
“Really, what you see different from Idaho from the last couple of years to now is really at the line of scrimmage in their offensive and defensive lines,” Jones said. “Both of them are better and that’s where I feel their biggest improvement has been.”
Bingo. The Vandals’ progress at the line of scrimmage has been stunning – throughout the season, yes, but especially over the last six weeks.
Idaho (6-4, 4-2 Sun Belt) hasn’t allowed a sack in three of its last five games. Over that same stretch, the Vandals have collected 17 sacks and 37 tackles for loss.
It’s not a coincidence that Idaho is 4-1 since the offensive and defensive lines ratcheted up their play (and, to be fair, the team got past the hairiest part of its schedule).
“I think that’s where it all starts,” coach Paul Petrino said. “Our defensive line has really played well, led by Tueni (Lupeamanu) and Aikeem (Coleman). I think they’ve played exceptionally well up front. I think Coach (Kris) Cinkovich has done a great job with our offensive line. I think it’s just gotten better and better as the year’s went on.”
To be sure, the Vandals’ turnaround isn’t all because of improved line play. Quarterback Matt Linehan and the team’s skill position players have helped Idaho average 32 points per game since a slow first three weeks. The secondary and linebackers are covering better in open space. The special teams unit has made big strides.
But the Vandals wouldn’t have a chance, with two games left in the regular season, to have its winningest season since 1998 without a mix of veterans and newcomers playing well up front.
“You won’t play games in November and December that matter if you’re not good in the trenches,” said Cinkovich, the team’s offensive coordinator and O-line coach. “I’d like to think we’ve emphasized that.”
On the offensive line, the Vandals have mixed and matched seven or eight big bodies because of injuries. Three seniors – guard Mason Woods, center Steven Matlock and tackle Calvin White – have taken the majority of snaps at their positions and have played together the last several years. Freshmen Noah Johnson and Zion Dixon (Lake City) and sophomore Patrick Johnson have slid in nicely, particularly of late with starter Jordan Rose injured.
The steadiness of Woods and Patrick Johnson stand out.
Woods is 6-feet-9, 320 and hails from outside of Vancouver, British Columbia. He’s the tallest player on the team, and the only Canadian. His high school, Terry Fox Secondary, played American rules football, but he faced a huge adjustment to college football.
In the U.S., “the guys are generally just a little bit bigger, a little bit faster, a little stronger than what you’ll find in Canada,” he said.
Woods redshirted in 2012 – the last year of Robb Akey’s tenure – and has started the last three years.
“You never think ’cause he doesn’t move real fast (and) because so he’s big, but he grades out good,” Cinkovich said. “He graded out really good last week (at Texas State), and he knows what’s he doing.
“He’s played a lot of football. And I think like all of our seniors, he wants to get out of here and put one of those (banners) up that really means something.”
Johnson, a Phoenix product, is what Cinkovich calls a “program guy” – a player who works hard, doesn’t complain and eventually gets on the field. He likened his emergence to that of Jordan Frysinger, a receiver who made a sudden (and big) impact earlier this year at the same time.
Johnson rotates in at tackle, guard and center. He’s gone from a backup to starting with Rose hurt.
“This group of guys (on the O-line) has come together really well so far this season,” Woods said. “Probably the best I’ve seen since I’ve been here. You know, we’re working together as a group. We’re all coming together.”
Both lines will get tested on Saturday. South Alabama’s Randy Allen is tied for the Sun Belt lead with 8.5 sacks, and Petrino raved about the Jaguars’ speed and talent.
But just behind Allen on the Sun Belt sack leaderboard is Coleman, the Vandals’ junior defensive end from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who has eight sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
Just like the Vandals’ recent surge, Coleman has come on late in the season. In the last three games, he has five sacks and seven TFLs.
“D-line, O-line, (this is the) best by far they’ve played since I’ve been here,” fourth-year senior Trent Cowan said. “O-line is protecting Matt, making holes for the running backs. And (the) D-line, that’s a great group. Tueni and Aikeem out there getting sacks, it’s fun to watch.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.