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Things to watch: How will Vandals fare taking on defending Big Sky champion Sacramento State?

By Peter Harriman For The Spokesman-Review

MOSCOW, Idaho – When the Sun Belt Conference abandoned Idaho after the 2017 season, the Vandals’ consolation was the promise from UI administrators and coaches that they would be relevant in the pursuit of Football Championship Subdivision championships.

It took four consecutive losing seasons before breaking through with a 7-5 record and appearance in the FCS first-round playoffs last year, but here they are.

The seventh-ranked Vandals (2-1) open their home season against second-ranked Sacramento State (3-0), fresh off its 30-23 upset of Stanford, in a game that looms large in early season rankings, perhaps the Big Sky championship and possibly playoff seeding.

In an echo of the Football Bowl Subdivision days, Idaho’s 1998 Humanitarian Bowl championship team will be reconvening in Moscow for a 25th anniversary Saturday.

Here are three things the members of the old guard might pay attention to as they watch the current Vandals take on Sacramento State, the Big Sky defending champion.

Can the Vandals stop Kaiden Bennett? Sacramento State’s quarterback has thrown for 676 yards and ran for 239 this year. Last season, the Hornets edged Idaho 31-28 in Sacramento, California, largely on the strength of a powerful running game that set up opportune passing and a go-ahead score late in the game. In practice early this week, Idaho coach Jason Eck, who usually moves between watching offense and defense, spent most of a day with the first- and second-team defense that was working against the scout team and mostly concentrating on stopping the run.

Is Anthony Woods available? The sophomore running back rushed for 138 yards against Lamar and 71 against Nevada in Idaho’s two victories this season. He also ran for 56 yards in a 31-17 loss to California. But Woods was not expected to practice before Thursday this week as he recovered from the accumulated wear of those games. Eck said Woods is 85% good to go against the Hornets. With a year in Idaho’s offense under his belt, Woods knows his assignments well enough that Eck was not concerned about giving him a couple of days of rest.

Who has the size advantage? In its breakthrough season last year, Idaho’s biggest shortcoming was getting worn down late in games by bigger teams – like Sacramento State. This year, however, the Vandals average 11 pounds more per man on the offensive line. While no defensive lineman weighed more than 270 pounds last season, this year, no one on the defensive line’s two-deep depth chart weighs less than 275.