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Things to watch: Defense will be key during Idaho’s road game at Weber State

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

When Idaho coach Jason Eck assessed his team’s schedule before the start of the season, he predicted that Saturday’s contest against Weber State would be the Vandals’ “toughest road game” of the year in Big Sky play.

The Wildcats are usually conference title contenders and Football Championship Subdivision playoff entrants. They entered the season as a top-10 team in the nation.

Weber State hasn’t lived up to expectations, but it’s still a “dangerous team,” Eck noted, and there’s no doubt that this will be a difficult challenge for Idaho – a must-win road game for a Vandals team that needs to win its final two games to clinch at least a share of the Big Sky title.

“It’s a huge game for us,” Eck said. “We gotta focus on ourselves and play our best football.”

The Vandals (7-2, 5-1 Big Sky), ranked No. 4 in the STATS Perform FCS poll, visit Weber State (4-5, 2-4) for a noon kickoff Saturday in Ogden, Utah.

Idaho is coming off a 27-13 victory over winless Northern Colorado. The Wildcats had one of their best games of the season last week, topping Idaho State 33-21 to snap a three-game skid.

Weber State defense to offer tough test

Weber State is traditionally a well-rounded defensive team with exceptional talent within its front seven. The Wildcats might not be as strong on that side of the ball as they’ve been in past years, but defense is still the defining trait of this team.

Weber State ranks in the upper half of the Big Sky in total defense (368.9 yards per game), scoring defense (23.9 points per game) and rushing defense (136 yards per game).

“It’s a very talented defense,” Eck said.

The Wildcats boast the conference’s top tackler in middle linebacker Winston Reid, the preseason Big Sky Defender of the Year.

Edge rusher Brayden Wilson leads the conference with 12 tackles for loss, and linebacker Jack Kelly ranks third in the Big Sky with 6½ sacks.

“We gotta play well up front,” Eck said. “This will be another challenge for our offensive line.”

Passing defense has been a relative weakness for the Wildcats, who allow 232.9 yards per game through the air (86th nationally and eighth in the Big Sky).

Idaho should have an edge in the passing game – that is, if the Vandals get a consistent effort from their young offensive line, which has sometimes struggled to protect quarterback Gevani McCoy.

The Vandals prefer to field a balanced offensive attack. Their ground game has been productive, averaging 169.4 yards per game (28th nationally). Maintaining that balance against a solid Weber State rushing defense will be key for the Vandals.

This much is certain: Idaho’s offense needs to play better than it did last week. The Vandals were held to a season-low 326 yards last weekend in a close win at Northern Colorado.

Favorable matchup for Idaho defense

The Vandals’ defense has emerged as perhaps the best group in the Big Sky. Idaho sits atop the conference rankings – and in the top 10 nationally – in total defense (291.4 yards per game) and passing defense (158.1 yards per game). The Vandals check in at second in the Big Sky in scoring defense (20.9 points per game).

Weber State has been held back by its offense this season. The Wildcats gain 293 yards per game – 11th in the Big Sky – and rank last in the conference in passing offense (152.9 yards per game).

True freshman quarterback Richie Munoz is set to make his fourth career start. He wasn’t too efficient in his first two starts, both losses, but had a breakout game last week in a win over Idaho State, tossing three touchdown passes.

Still, Idaho’s veteran secondary should have a major advantage against a rookie quarterback who hasn’t faced a great defense.

Watch for a competitive battle on the ground between an Idaho rushing defense that has been hit-and-miss and a Weber State rushing offense that has been impressive at times. The Vandals allow 133.3 rushing yards per game (43rd nationally and fourth in the Big Sky). The Wildcats average 136 rushing yards, ranking 48th nationally and fifth in the conference.

Vandals need to be sharper

Idaho had a somewhat sloppy performance last weekend in a narrow win over Northern Colorado. The Vandals’ offense looked out of sorts in stretches. Idaho’s defense had a commendable performance overall, but stopping the run was sometimes an issue.

“I certainly think we can play better and more consistently than we did,” Eck said. “We gotta have a great week of preparation and up our championship behavior all week.

“We gotta approach this game the same way as you do with a game like Montana State, because it’s huge. … If we play our best football, and we’ve shown that this year, we can play with anybody. But if we play average to below-average football, then this team can certainly beat us.”

The road game is the most difficult test remaining on the Vandals’ regular-season schedule, so they can’t afford another inconsistent week. That could cost them a Big Sky title.