First things first. It appears there is going to be a game.
An uptick in COVID-19 cases at the University of Idaho accompanied an announcement last week that the Vandals would not be playing a pair of regular season-ending men’s basketball games at the University of Montana this weekend due to COVID issues in the UI basketball program.
This does not appear to have threatened Saturday’s football game between the Vandals and the UC Davis in the Kibbie Dome. Idaho tested players Thursday morning, and nothing has emerged from that to cause a postponement.
So, more customary aspects of football now come to the fore. The Vandals will take their new No. 19 national ranking into competition against the Aggies, a team with a history of fielding a dynamic, fast-paced offense but one with a new quarterback following the graduation of three-year starter Jake Maier. Aggies’ coach Dan Hawkins has not announced Maier’s successor, but junior Hunter Rodrigues was Maier’s backup in 2019 and appeared in three games.
Ulonzo Gilliam is still the focus on offense. He was the Big Sky Conference leading rusher in 2019 with 1,249 yards and a deadly receiver with 57 catches. When UC Davis played Idaho in 2018, Gilliam rushed for 133 yards.
The UC Davis defense is something of a mystery. It is led by a new defensive coordinator, Matt Coombs. Idaho coach Paul Petrino points out Coombs has most recently coached at Oregon and Boise State, and the Vandals are looking there for clues, although Petrino expects to see both three- and four-front schemes.
The Aggies do feature sophomore linebacker Nick Eaton, the Big Sky freshman of the year in 2019, and Devon King, all-Big Sky cornerback with 77 tackles in 2019, including 5.5 tackles for loss. He also made three interceptions and forced three fumbles.
Idaho has a game’s experience on the Aggies. While the Vandals last week came back from trailing by two touchdowns to defeat 12th-ranked Eastern Washington, 28-21, UC Davis had its scheduled opener against Cal Poly postponed by COVID-19 cases among the Mustangs.
The Vandals’ depth was tested against the Eagles. Starting center Chad Bagwell and wide receiver and kick returner Jermaine Jackson went out in the first half with leg injuries that may keep them sidelined against UC Davis, and Big Sky defensive player of the week Tre Walker (15 tackles and a sack at linebacker along with 27 rushing yards) was among several defensive starters who were lost for parts of the second half after seizing up with leg cramps.
Bagwell was replaced by Greyson Harwood, a freshman from Rupert. That meant Idaho went most of the game with two freshmen on the offensive line. Nate Azzopardi started at quick tackle. Petrino applauded Harwood’s performance against EWU, but he also pointed out strong tackle Logan Floyd played center in 2019 and could slide over and play it again if the Vandals need him to.
Jackson was hurt early in the second quarter on a kick return before he really had a chance to use his impressive speed on offense. However, Idaho has loads of talent in its passing game. Following a shaky first quarter in which he was frequently off target on read option short throws, new starting quarterback Mike Beaudry settled in, began to attack EWU with deeper throws and finished with 296 yards passing and a pair of touchdowns. Hayden Hatten and Cutrell Haywood each caught a touchdown pass, with Hatten’s 25-yard end zone reception accounting for the game-winning points.
The Vandals’ defense, offense and special teams all had their fingerprints on the late-game heroics. With the score tied at 21-apiece, senior punter Cade Coffey, the Stats Perform national special team player of the week, launched a 61-yard punt that pinned EWU back on its 18-yard line. Idaho’s defense forced the Eagles to go three-and-out, and Beaudry and Hatten connected for their touchdown.
Having all elements of the team contribute at such a defining moment gives Idaho great momentum going into Saturday’s game, says Coffey, who punted seven times for a 50.6-yard average against EWU.
“I think it bodes well for this next week. It’s awesome when you see offense, defense and special teams feeding off each other,” Coffey said. “That’s when you know you have good leadership, to be honest, and a good team. That’s when you know you can really build off a win like that, when everyone is in synch.”
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