Don’t take your eyes off …
Though it might not be the most well-matched football game, it’s still a compelling matchup between these farmland foes, an interesting chapter in the long history of the Battle of the Palouse rivalry series. Optimism abounds on both sides of the border leading into Week 1 of the season. Washington State has a shiny new coaching staff, an entertaining new offense, a similarly stout defense and an invigorated perspective after a uniquely challenging 2021 season. Idaho rejuvenated its fan base this offseason, making a change in leadership and bringing in a staff that vows to return the Vandals to FCS prominence. The two fresh faces in charge of the programs – WSU’s Jake Dickert and Idaho’s Jason Eck – are Wisconsin natives, first-time head coaches and friends who were co-workers at a couple of past coaching stops. “The first thing I did when Jason got the job,” Dickert said. “I called him up and said, ‘How ironic is this that we’re going to be out there for the first game?’ ” The game itself might not offer more than a small preview of the two rebuilt programs. WSU is an overwhelming favorite to run away with the win. But Pullman will be buzzing Saturday ahead of the first Battle of the Palouse football game since 2016. The atmosphere at Gesa Field should be memorable, and pregame festivities between the neighbors should be no doubt enjoyable.
When Washington State
has the ball …
It’s the long-awaited debut for WSU’s new version of the Air Raid system – and for touted new quarterback Cameron Ward. The hype surrounding Ward has been building since he signed with the program in January. Finally, after much anticipation, WSU fans will get a glimpse of the high-profile transfer quarterback’s potential. The Cougars’ pass-heavy offense, boasting a budding star at QB and several flashy receivers, should find cracks in the Vandals’ secondary, which struggled to limit big plays through the air last year. It’s one of the game’s two most obvious mismatches: WSU’s explosive Pac-12 receiving corps versus Idaho’s questionable Big Sky defensive backfield. The Cougars will operate with tempo on offense and mix up their looks – a four-receiver set will be most common, but expect some five-wide formations, plenty of receivers in motion before the snap and quick passes, plus tight ends and a considerable use of the ground game. “As an offense, you’re just going to see a lot of what you expect to see – touchdowns, a lot of fast scoring, a lot of people touching the ball,” slot receiver Lincoln Victor said, “and us just getting back to that Cougar mentality, coming out here and having fun.” The Vandals’ defense is paced by its linebackers and edge rushers, but WSU will enjoy a significant size advantage up front.
When Idaho has the ball …
Dickert ribbed his Palouse neighbor earlier this week, sending a text message to friend and competitor Eck: “I’ll tell you our quarterback if you tell me yours,” Dickert said during his weekly coach’s show. Eck replied only with a thumbs-up emoji. The Cougars decided on their starting QB about eight months ago. The Vandals won’t make a call until game time. Three Vandals are in the running. Transfer J’Bore Gibbs is looking to reboot his career after three injury-derailed seasons at South Dakota State. He followed Eck, formerly the SDSU offensive coordinator, to Moscow. Gibbs might seem like the best option on paper, but he’s no lock to start. In fact, it’s just as likely that the Vandals trot out one of the young returners – redshirt freshmen Gevani McCoy or CJ Jordan, both of whom have produced mixed results over nine combined games at UI. Eck said earlier this week that he has a “good plan with what we’re doing” at the QB position, but he wanted to “leave some suspense” ahead of the opener. In any case, the Vandals aren’t experienced at the QB position and they aren’t incredibly tested on the offensive line. Those uncertainties spell trouble against WSU’s defensive front, headlined by two All-Pac-12 candidates in edge rushers Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson. To have any chance of sustaining drives, the Vandals will need top individual efforts from their standouts. They’ll be counting on big-bodied veteran running back Roshaun Johnson and their All-Big Sky receivers in Terez Traynor and Hayden Hatten. At SDSU, Eck leaned on the ground game, dialing up run calls about 60% of the time. But his Jackrabbits teams usually had some of the best tailbacks and offensive linemen in the FCS. Eck’s offense often includes two tight ends and perhaps two running backs, but he always formulates his style to best fit his talent. “Formationally, he does a great job of getting the ball in the hands of his best players,” Dickert said.
WSU and Idaho have only met twice since 2010. Dickert and Eck are hoping to stage the Battle of the Palouse on a more consistent basis in the future. “I’d love to play them probably every other year,” Eck said. Dickert suggested an annual meeting, but considering the history of the series, perhaps that wouldn’t be fair for Idaho. WSU holds a 71-17-2 advantage all time and is 23-2 against the Vandals since 1965. Idaho tipped the Cougars in back-to-back seasons in 1999 and 2000, but WSU has claimed nine straight in the series since. A former assistant coach at Idaho (2004-06), Eck has participated in three Battle of the Palouse games. WSU won 49-8, 38-26 and 56-10 in 2004, ’05 and ’06, respectively. The Cougars and Vandals played annually between 1998-2007. They squared off consistently from the mid-1890s to the late 1970s, but the game was played rarely during the 1980s and ’90s.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.