Events late Sunday morning at the football offices in the University of Idaho Kibbie Dome were building to a beehive of activity. Coaches and graduate assistants all had some happy urgency in their step as they moved among meeting rooms, offices and film rooms, and head coach Jason Eck constantly catching his breath as he directed the action.
The Vandals (7-4 overall, 6-2 Big Sky) are going to the playoffs.
For the first time since the 2016 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the UI football team will be playing in the postseason. For the first time since 1995, it will be in what is now the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
The Vandals learned Sunday they will be flying across the country to Hammond, Louisiana , to take on Southeastern Louisiana University, the second-place team in the Southland League (8-3, 4-1) on Saturday at 4 p.m. Pacific.
Fortunately for the Vandals, their coach has some experience with this.
As an assistant at South Dakota State University, Eck made six straight trips to the playoffs between 2016-21, reaching the championship game in 2020.
The Vandals’ schedule found coaches Sunday breaking down videotape of the Lions. Monday morning, they will review with the players game tape from Idaho’s 38-7 win against Idaho State last Saturday. Monday afternoon, Idaho will begin to install the game plan for the first-round playoff game. By Thursday, the Vandals will get together for a team Thanksgiving dinner, and Friday they will fly to Louisiana. Eck’s own week is complicated by the fact he hopes to close on the sale of his former home in South Dakota on Tuesday.
“It’s a good problem to have,” he said.
Idaho is on a steep learning curve with the Lions, since the Vandals did not play a team from the Southland League. Eck even had to check whether the Lions played on grass or turf.
“It’s kind of fun and exciting to play somebody new,” Eck said. “I don’t even know much about their coaching staff. All I’ve done so far is look at their stats.”
Those showed him the Lions were reasonably balanced on offense, averaging 182 yards per game rushing and 250 passing, although they had more rushing attempts than passes. They also played two quarterbacks. Cephus Johnson III was the running specialist, averaging 5.4 yards per carry on 77 attempts, and Eli Sawyer was more of a passer, who threw for 1,605 yards and 11 touchdowns. The defense was opportunistic with 14 interceptions.
Experience in the playoffs has taught Eck to refine what Idaho does best going into this game.
“Do what brought you there. That’s important,” Eck said.
The Vandals will focus on getting the ball to their leading receivers Hayden Hatten (1,000 yards on 74 catches and a single season school record 15 touchdowns) and Jermaine Jackson (49 receptions for 938 yards and four touchdowns).
Quarterback Gevani McCoy, who missed Saturday’s win over Idaho State with a knee injury, is expected to return. If he is unable to go, freshman Jack Layne, who filled in for McCoy against the Bengals, will get the call again.
Against ISU, Layne completed 18 of 29 passes for 255 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Layne can play in two more games without endangering a redshirt year, although Eck pointed out if the Vandals get on a playoff roll “and we’re playing North Dakota State in the quarter-finals, that might be worth losing the year.”
The only other player who could miss the first playoff game is linebacker Sully Shannon. Against ISU “he got nicked,” said Eck.
The NCAA allows teams to take 65 players to the playoffs. The Big Sky Conference also imposes that limit on its games, Eck pointed out, so Idaho is comfortable playing within those limits.
The excitement of reaching postseason play for the first time in six years has shed some gloom around the Vandals’ football team, which has along with the Moscow community, have mourned the killing of four UI students in an off-campus residence a week ago.
“Every day was a little bit better,” Eck said. “By Thursday, the team was responding nicely.”
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