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Things to watch: Idaho hosts rival Idaho State with chance to boost playoff seeding

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

MOSCOW, Idaho – Looking to secure a favorable position in the postseason bracket, the Idaho Vandals conclude the regular season Saturday with a home game against their in-state foes.

Idaho (7-3, 5-2 Big Sky), ranked No. 6 in the STATS Perform Football Championship Subdivision poll, hosts Idaho State (3-7, 3-4) for a 4 p.m. kickoff at the Kibbie Dome.

With a win, Idaho would likely lock up a top-eight seed in the FCS playoffs. That’d give UI a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the second round.

A loss probably wouldn’t hurt Idaho’s playoff chances, but it’d force the Vandals to play a first-round game next weekend.

The Vandals are coming off a 31-29 road loss to Weber State. The result knocked Idaho out of the Big Sky title race.

ISU has dropped three straight games, but it has been more competitive under first-year coach Cody Hawkins.

UI pass defense to be tested

The Bengals boast the No. 1 passing offense in the nation at 337.7 yards per game.

The Vandals rank atop the Big Sky in passing defense at 157.5 yards allowed per game – good for seventh in the nation.

Idaho State quarterbacks Jordan Cooke and Hunter Hays combine to attempt about 48 passes per game, completing an average of 29 . The Bengals elect to throw on 70% of their plays.

“They’ll be in ‘four wide’ every snap, which is a little different than most offenses in our league,” Idaho coach Jason Eck said. “We gotta be vertically sound.”

Opposing quarterbacks haven’t been too productive against Idaho’s veteran-laden secondary, completing just 54% of their passes with 14 touchdowns against six interceptions.

Turnovers have been a glaring issue for Bengals QBs, who have tossed 18 combined picks – last in the nation. This could be an opportunity for Idaho to boost its takeaway numbers. The Vandals’ defense has only recorded nine turnovers this year.

Watch the matchup of Vandals cornerback Marcus Harris and Bengals deep threat Chedon James, who ranks first in the Big Sky with eight TD catches and second with 900 yards.

Keeping the Bengals grounded will be key for the hosts. Idaho State ranks second to last in the nation in rushing offense at 60.2 yards per game.

Will Woods return?

Standout Idaho tailback Anthony Woods’ status is uncertain heading into the final game of the regular season.

“Hopefully, we get Anthony back,” Eck said during his midweek radio show. “He’s been rehabbing hard. … I’m optimistic that we can get him back (versus Idaho State).

The sophomore missed last week’s game against Weber State with an undisclosed injury, forcing senior backup Nick Romano to shoulder the load. Romano had a respectable outing, rushing for 84 yards and two TDs on 22 carries. He lost one fumble, resulting in a Weber State touchdown drive.

But the Vandals were clearly missing Woods’ elusiveness out of the backfield. Idaho struggled to pick up big yardage on the ground – the team’s longest rush went for 12 yards – and the Vandals were not productive enough on early downs without their lead back.

Woods ranks fourth in the nation and leads the Big Sky with 13 rushing touchdowns. He has amassed 872 yards on the ground – 18th nationally and second in the conference.

The Vandals have operated with balance all season, splitting the passes and runs almost 50/50. Idaho wants to wear its opponents down on the ground and chew clock. That opens opportunities in the passing game, and makes everything easier for quarterback Gevani McCoy. The Vandals didn’t have that luxury last week, so McCoy was forced to attempt a career-high 51 passes in the loss.

“That’s not our kind of football,” Eck said after the game.

The Vandals should have an advantage against an Idaho State defense that has struggled in all phases. The Bengals rank 116th nationally and second-to-last in the Big Sky in rushing defense (221.4 yards allowed per game). They sit at 104th in the FCS and second-to-last in the conference in passing defense (245.7 yards allowed).

Honoring senior class

The Vandals will celebrate 17 players, many of whom have been key pieces in the team’s rebuild, before kickoff.

“These guys were really helpful to me, getting our program established and getting things started,” Eck said. “I’ll be forever grateful to those guys for their contributions.”

The most significant players who will walk on senior day are superstar receivers Hayden Hatten and Jermaine Jackson, all-conference cornerback Marcus Harris, linebacker Tre Thomas, kicker/punter Ricardo Chavez and veteran tailback Romano.

Hatten, an All-American who is one of Idaho’s most prolific receivers in program history, still has a season of eligibility remaining. He hasn’t specified whether he’ll return for another year or move on to the pro ranks.

Hatten leads the Big Sky with 911 yards this season and ranks second in the conference with seven receiving touchdowns. He ranks first in program history with 31 receiving TDs and sits second with 3,129 career yards.

Jackson had a breakout season in 2022, recording over 1,000 yards and landing on the All-Big Sky first team. The fourth-year Vandal has 489 receiving yards this season, but has yet to score a touchdown.

An All-Big Sky candidate, Harris has established himself as Idaho’s top defender. He has recorded 40 tackles (3½ for loss) with two interceptions and nine pass break-ups this year. Harris still has one season of eligibility left.

Thomas, a grad transfer from South Dakota, has held down a starting role at middle linebacker throughout his first and only season at Idaho. He ranks third on the team with 52 tackles. Chavez, another likely all-conference pick, is 14 of 16 on field-goal attempts this season with a long of 53 yards. He’s averaging a conference-best 48.18 yards per punt. Romano, a fifth-year Vandal, has been productive as the Vandals’ No. 2 running back. He has rushed for 479 yards and four TDs, and is averaging 5 yards per carry.

Other players who will be honored: tight end TJ Ivy (224 yards, two TDs), defensive tackle Ben Bertram (17 tackles), tight end Alex Moore (102 yards, two TDs), long snapper Hogan Hatten, safety Sean McCormick, tight end Jack Schuster, guard/center Eli Sanchez, guard Abe Christensen, kicker Logan Prescott and backup offensive linemen Connor Wood and Jory Dotts.

“We’re trying to create a legacy for these seniors,” Eck said. “Even though they’re not going to be able to say they were conference champions, if they can have back-to-back playoff seasons for the first time since before they were born (1994-95), that’s still a great legacy.

“The exciting thing is, if we play really well, then hopefully this isn’t their last game in the Kibbie Dome.”