MOSCOW, Idaho – Alight with the shining prospects of a new season and a chance to improve on last year’s disappointing 4-7 record, Idaho travels to Happy Valley on Saturday to take on nationally ranked Penn State.
Well, maybe not entirely. The Nittany Lions are ranked 15th in the Associated Press poll, but there are worse times to have to play such a highly ranked foe.
First, strange things can happen in opening games. Also, while an imposing defense provides the foundation for Penn State’s national ranking, six starters are new on offense, most notably redshirt sophomore quarterback Sean Clifford. He succeeds three-year starter Trace McSorley, who holds a multitude of team passing records. Most of the speculation surrounding Clifford is that he’s no McSorley.
However, he does have an outstanding target to throw to in wide receiver KJ Hamler, who is also an electric kick returner and broke Saquan Barkley’s team record for freshman all-purpose yards, with 1,417.
“When (Hamler) has got the ball in his hands, we’ve got to get everybody to fly to the ball,” Idaho coach Paul Petrino said.
As good as Penn State’s defense is expected to be, it will have to play for a half without senior linebacker Cam Brown, who be serving a targeting penalty from last season.
Defense could be Idaho’s calling card, too, this year. The Vandals, who were frustrated by Big Sky Conference mobile quarterbacks and wide-open passing attacks in their return to the league in 2018, hope they have successfully staffed up to solve that problem.
A pair of 350-pound defensive tackles in Jonah Kim and Noah Elliss, and a deep linebacker rotation keyed by sophomore Tre Walker in the middle should provide pressure, even against the likes of Penn State. The defensive backfield should be fast and athletic with Western Michigan graduate transfer Davontae Ginwright and junior college transfer Satchel Escalante starting at the safeties. Senior Lloyd Hightower is back to anchor one corner.
The fall camp development of redshirt freshman Christian Nash at cornerback allows Idaho to play Jalen Hoover as a slot corner, giving the Vandals an effective nickel defense, according to Petrino.
The looming issue with Idaho, of course, is its ongoing commitment to playing both Mason Petrino and Colton Richardson at quarterback. Paul Petrino said both will play through the early season, but he wants to have one of them named as starter by the beginning of Big Sky Conference games. Unlike last year, where the quarterbacks sometimes rotated play to play, this season they will go longer, for entire series or quarters, the coach said.
The quarterbacks have elite targets in Jeff Cotton and Cutrell Haywood. Those two have raised the bar on pass-catching excellence daily in practice, and each took multiple reps in preseason camp.
The line, led by senior All-America guard Noah Johnson and sophomore tackle/center Logan Floyd, should be sound and experienced. Idaho can cycle a half-dozen running backs through a series – all of whom have had practice highlights. Some, like redshirt sophomore Roshaun Johnson, are experienced. Others, like freshman Nick Romano, are new, and redshirt sophomore Dylan Thigpen is coming back from a gruesome knee injury. But Idaho has no shortage of running backs.
Idaho will be without at least three significant contributors, though. Linebacker Christian Elliss, offensive lineman Sean Tulette and wide receiver DJ Lee did not make the trip after violating team rules.
All-America punter Cade Coffey is potentially a big weapon for the Vandals. His ability to pin down the Nittany Lions and make them play offense on a long field could be key, according to Paul Petrino.
What if the Vandals outperform expectations and find themselves in the ballgame with Penn State as late as the fourth quarter?
“If that happens,” Cotton said, “it gives everybody a lot of confidence. Then it’s up to us to win the game.”