MOSCOW, Idaho – After practice one day early this week, when everyone had jogged into the locker room, Idaho senior linebackers Kaden Elliss and Ed Hall and a couple of teammates reassembled on the Kibbie Dome turf.
Elliss shed his shoulder pads and helmet. Hall, who is recovering from a neck injury, and the others wore football pants and shirts.
They made a line of scrimmage with tackling dummies, overturned garbage cans and a chair. Elliss referred to a sheet of paper and the players, at half speed, ran through their gap assignments on the looks Elliss called out.
While the Vandals turned in a less-than-committed effort against Eastern Washington in a loss last week – in the words of head coach Paul Petrino – and saw their record slip to 3-5 overall and 2-4 in the Big Sky Conference, Idaho has not checked out on the season if the example of the senior linebackers is any indication.
With all three wins at home, the Vandals still have a notable goal available. Victories over North Dakota on Saturday and Montana on Nov. 10 would allow them to run the table at home.
“It would be a great thing if the seniors could go out and win every game at home,” Petrino said.
Idaho, however, is somewhat beat-up.
Hall, cornerback Dorian Clark, and offensive linemen Irving Schuster and Conner Vrba all missed the EWU game with injuries, and sophomore quarterback Colton Richardson was hurt in the game. Schuster and Vrba were back at practice early this week, but Petrino said all the injured Vandals were day-to-day leading up to the North Dakota game.
“There’s an outside chance all could be back. There’s an outside chance none could be back,” Petrino said.
In the Fighting Hawks, Idaho can expect an opponent that emulates the Midwest, Big 10 ethic of power football.
“They really like to run the ball,” Elliss said. “It’s traditional, old-school football, with big tight ends and running backs.”
In senior John Santiago, the Fighting Hawks have an elite running back, a two-time All-America and three-time All-Big Sky player – if he is available.
Santiago has played five games this year, with a high of 139 rushing yards against Washington, but he has been battling injuries and missed North Dakota’s most recent game against Weber State, a loss.
Brady Oliveira and James Johannesson have stepped up. Each has rushed for more than 600 yards this season. Quarterback Nate Ketteringham, a redshirt junior and transfer from Sacramento State, gives North Dakota a credible play-action capability, Petrino said.
Petrino called the Fighting Hawks, “very active” on defense. He said junior defensive end Mason Bennett, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, “is as good a defensive lineman as we’ve played.”
Petrino also singled out linebackers Donnell Rodgers and Noah Larson. The defense has averaged 3.5 sacks per game, fourth best in the country.
North Dakota, a former Big Sky member, is playing as an independent this year and next before transitioning to the Missouri Valley Conference. The Fighting Hawks (5-3) have gone 3-2 against Big Sky teams this season, with wins against Northern Colorado, Montana and Sacramento State, and losses against Idaho State and Weber State.
Idaho holds a 2-0 series advantage over North Dakota, with victories in Moscow in 2010 and 2011.
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