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Idaho Football

First look: Under first-year coaches, Washington State and Idaho set to resume Battle of the Palouse series

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

What is it? Farmland foes Washington State and Idaho, both opening their seasons under first-year head coaches, will renew their Battle of the Palouse rivalry after a five-year hiatus.

Where is it? The Vandals will make the 7-mile trip west to Gesa Field in Pullman.

When is it? Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

Where can I watch it? The game will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks.

Who is favored? Official betting odds haven’t been released, but most media outlets are picking the Cougars to run away with the victory by three or more scores. ESPN gives WSU a 95% chance to win.

How did they fare last season? The Cougars rallied and pulled off a successful campaign despite losing head coach Nick Rolovich, who was fired at midseason for failing to comply with a state COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Led by acting coach Jake Dickert, WSU exceeded expectations and played a spirited brand of ball en route to a 7-6 overall record and a 6-3 mark in conference play – 3-3 and 2-1 after Dickert took the helm in mid-October. The Cougars came up one Pac-12 win short of qualifying for the conference title game. Dickert was named permanent head coach in November and spent the offseason reshaping the program, hiring a new staff, recruiting several potential stars, installing a new Air Raid offense and generating buzz for his new-look team.

The Vandals dismissed longtime head coach Paul Petrino following a 4-7 campaign – the team’s fifth consecutive losing season – and hired Jason Eck, who had been the offensive coordinator at FCS powerhouse South Dakota State over the past three seasons. Eck rebuilt Idaho’s coaching staff this offseason and rejuvenated a Vandal fan base that hasn’t had much to cheer for since the program dropped down to the FCS level in 2018.

Why WSU will win: Naturally, the Pac-12’s Cougars enjoy major advantages in talent and size over the Big Sky’s Vandals. WSU should outperform Idaho at each position. Let’s take a look at a couple of notable mismatches.

The Cougs lean on the passing game, and their Air Raid offense boasts star potential between touted transfer quarterback Cameron Ward – who picked apart FCS defenses last season at Incarnate Word – and a flashy group of receivers that has established itself as one of WSU’s two best positions. The Vandals surrendered 26 passing touchdowns last season, finishing last in the Big Sky in that category, and ranked near the bottom of the conference in total pass defense, allowing 256.5 yards through the air per game – including a season-worst 624 and eight TDs against Eastern Washington. Perhaps the Vandals have improved their pass defense under their new coaches, but a complete turnaround in one year is unrealistic.

The Vandals don’t seem to be settled on their quarterback. SDSU transfer J’Bore Gibbs, who flashed potential during an injury-plagued Jackrabbits career, has been in a position battle with redshirt freshmen Gevani McCoy and CJ Jordan throughout the preseason. Idaho dealt with injuries at the QB position last year. McCoy and Jordan both played a few games. Neither of them found much success. Idaho totaled nine passing touchdowns and 13 interceptions on the year. The Vandals’ offensive line is also relatively untested at the Big Sky level. WSU’s defensive front, on the other hand, may be among the best in the Pac-12. The Cougs’ veterans on the defensive line, enjoying a significant edge against a lower-level O-line, could make it a long day for an inexperienced Idaho QB.

The Vandals struggled with turnovers last year, coughing up 21. The Cougars were one of the best takeaway-forcing teams in the FBS last season, collecting 29 to finish in a tie for fifth nationally in that stat column.

Why Idaho will win: There’s an element of unpredictability with a first-year staff running the show. Eck is a proven winner with a sharp mind for offense. His Jackrabbits rode a healthy rushing attack and finished 10th in the FCS in scoring offense at 36.1 points per game last season.

Eck coached in plenty of big games over the past three seasons with SDSU. He won’t be intimidated by an FBS opponent. The Jackrabbits routed FBS Colorado State 42-23 in Week 1 last season. They gave Minnesota a scare in 2019.

SDSU advanced to the national championship game in the spring 2021 season and lost to Sam Houston State. The Jackrabbits claimed two wins in the past two years against FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, which won the FCS title last season.

The Big Sky Conference has a history of upset wins over FBS competition. Big Sky teams posted four wins over FBS programs in 2021.

Idaho’s defensive front seven is a solid Big Sky unit and includes big-time transfer players in edge-rusher Juliano Falaniko (Southern Cal) and linebacker Paul Moala (Notre Dame), both of whom played in more than 20 games at their previous schools. The Vandals have length at the receiver positions in All-Big Sky talents Terez Traynor (6-3) and Hayden Hatten (6-2). Idaho has experience at running back in standout senior Roshaun Johnson.

What happened last time? The Cougs, after starting their 2016 season with losses to FCS Eastern Washington and Boise State, took out their frustrations on an Idaho team that turned out to be one of the best in Vandal program history. WSU walloped the Vandals 56-6 on Sept. 17, 2016 on a rainy day at Martin Stadium. The border rivals were scheduled to play in 2020, but the game was scrapped because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 1894, the teams have met 91 times. WSU has dominated the series, posting a 71-17-3 all-time record versus the Vandals. The Cougars are on a nine-game Battle of the Palouse winning streak. They have lost to Idaho only twice in 25 meetings since 1965 – the Vandals scored back-to-back wins in 1999 and 2000.

Things to know

1. Dickert and Eck share a home state and have similar coaching backgrounds. The two Wisconsin natives were co-workers at a couple of past stops. Dickert oversaw safeties and co-coordinated South Dakota State’s special teams in 2016 while Eck taught the Jackrabbits’ offensive linemen. Dickert coordinated the defense and coached linebackers at Division II Minnesota State in 2014. Eck served as the team’s offensive coordinator and O-line coach. Dickert grew up in Oconto, Wisconsin – a 230-mile drive northeast from Eck’s hometown of La Crosse. Dickert was a wide receiver at Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Eck played offensive line at Wisconsin. Both took step-by-step routes up the coaching ladder, moving constantly from one small program to the next before landing coordinator jobs, then securing the first head-coaching gigs of their careers.

2. The offensive systems employed by WSU and Idaho feature contrasting styles. Eck’s offense at SDSU took a run-first approach and stayed on the ground for about 60% of its plays. The Jackrabbits were paced by the top rusher in the FCS in Pierre Strong Jr. (1,686 yards). SDSU often plays two running backs and sends out plenty of “bunch” formations including two tight ends. The strength of WSU’s Air Raid, of course, is the passing game. In their base set, the Cougars will operate with four receivers. Expect their pass/run balance this season to be close to 60/40. Ward led the FCS in TD passes (47) last season and finished third in passing yardage (4,648) at Incarnate Word while steering the Cardinals’ Air Raid, which opted to pass about 60% of the time under coach Eric Morris – now the Cougs’ offensive coordinator.

3. Linebacker Fa’Avae Fa’Avae, a Vandal team captain, saw playing time coming off the bench for the Cougars in the 2018 and ‘19 seasons before transferring to Idaho. He recorded 11 tackles and a sack across 16 games. An All-Big Sky honorable mention player in spring 2021, Fa’Avae is one of four former WSU players on the Vandals’ roster, joining defensive lineman Carter Carlson, defensive back Jacob Skobis and kicker Logan Prescott. Carlson and Skobis had been on the Cougars’ roster for spring camp. Two former WSU staffers are working in assistant roles for the Vandals in cornerbacks coach Stanley Franks Jr. and defensive line coach David Lose. Franks was a quality control assistant for WSU over the past two years. Lose spent six seasons with the Cougars (2011-16) in various support roles. Adam Breske, a first-year WSU defensive quality control assistant, coached linebackers at Idaho under Petrino for the past four seasons. Luke Hyde, a first-year Cougar offensive grad assistant, was a GA at Idaho for the last two years after wrapping up his career as a Vandal tight end/fullback. Reserve Cougar offensive tackle Jack Wilson played basketball for the Vandals in 2019-20.

4. Idaho receives $575,000 from WSU for taking part in the “guarantee-money” game, per USA Today. The Vandals will reportedly rake in $1.3 million for their Week 2 matchup – at Indiana.