No. 113: Idaho
By Paul Myerberg // Apr 26, 2012
This happens with Vandals. Beginning in about 430 and running for the next century, the original Vandals — the group with the higher winning percentage — whipped the Romans out of Northern Africa, Sicily, Corsica and, eventually, Rome itself. But the Vandals grew fat and lazy in power, which allowed a reborn Byzantine Empire, from 530-34, to regain a significant portion of its lost Roman outposts and send the Vandals into irrelevance. Said Gelimer, the last king of the Vandals, at the time of the tribe’s decline, as recounted by Edward Gibbon: “The Vandals still prefer an ignominious repose, at the expense of their wives and children, their wealth and liberty.” See, the Vandals worked, clawed and fought to achieve their goal, but that pace grew to a crawl once they reached the pinnacle. Kind of like the other Vandals — the group with the lower winning percentage — who worked for more than a decade to go back into bowl play, but since getting there in 2009 have returned to, well, irrelevance.
10 (5 offense, 5 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Aug. 30
- Sept. 8
at Bowling Green
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 6
- Oct. 13
at Texas St.
- Oct. 20
at Louisiana Tech
- Nov. 3
San Jose St.
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 24
at Utah St.
Last year’s prediction
And I do think the Vandals can go 5-7 this fall; it’s just that those five wins wouldn’t be all that impressive, and I don’t Idaho can match up with the strong teams on its schedule. So the Vandals could win four of those five and add an F.C.S. win to go 5-7. In my mind, that’s not an impressive enough mark to justify a higher ranking. This is a fine team, just not a very good team, in my mind.
In a nutshell The bottom line is the bottom line, and there’s no sugarcoating the fact that Idaho fell back to double-digit losses after the gains made over the previous two seasons. But the Vandals weren’t exactly your typical two-win team. Idaho took Virginia to overtime in early October, losing after failing to convert a two-point try in the first extra frame. Idaho lost to New Mexico State by a touchdown. To Hawaii by two points, missing a 53-yard field goal as time expired. To Utah State by a touchdown, also in overtime. The Vandals were outclassed more than once, mind you — Bowling Green, B.Y.U. and Nevada, for example — but last season did painfully illustrate how only a handful of plays can determine the difference between two wins and bowl eligibility. Of course, the breaks went in Idaho’s favor in 2009. So now the Vandals have experienced both sides of the coin.
High point The lone F.B.S. win came at San Jose State on Nov. 5, when the Vandals edged the Spartans, 32-29, thanks to 25-0 run over the third and fourth quarters.
Low point Could-have-been wins hurt worse than no-chance losses, so Idaho’s low point would be losses to Virginia, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State, Hawaii and Utah State by a combined 28 points.
Tidbit During the program’s magical bowl run in 2009, Idaho went 8-2 in games decided by 15 or fewer points. Each of the Vandals’ wins that fall came by such a thin margin, highlighted by a 43-42 victory over Bowling Green — complete with a converted two-point try in overtime — in the Humanitarian Bowl. Over the last two years, however, the Vandals are 2-8 in games decided by 15 points or less. Both of the wins came at San Jose State’s expense: by 26-23 in 2010 and by 32-29 last fall. Let’s say that instead of being 1-3 in such games in 2010 and 1-5 in 2011, the Vandals were 3-1 and 5-1. Instead of finishing the regular season with a 6-7 record in 2010, Idaho would have been 8-5. Instead of going 2-10 last fall, Idaho would have reached bowl eligibility at 6-6.
Tidbit (B.C.S. conference edition) Idaho has not beat a current B.C.S. conference program since 2000, when it upset Washington State, 38-34, in Pullman. The Vandals have only three B.C.S. conference wins since 1993: Washington State in both 1999 and 2000 and Utah in 1993. Idaho’s all-time record against the current members of the six B.C.S. conferences is 46-261-11, with all 46 of those wins coming against the Pac-12, and 30 of those 46 wins coming Utah and Washington State. The program has yet to win a game against the A.C.C., Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 or SEC.
Tidbit (Boise State edition) I swear, there was a time when Idaho owned Boise State. The Vandals won 12 straight over the Broncos from 1982-93, and won 15 of 17 from 1982-98. Things went downhill — and fast — shortly thereafter. Boise State won 12 straight over Idaho from 1999 through 2010, when the rivalry began its current hiatus, outscoring the Vandals by 613-213. Over 12 games, that’s an average final score of about 51-18.
Former players in the N.F.L.
9 P T.J. Conley (New York Jets), LB Jojo Dickson (Jacksonville), QB Nathan Enderle (Chicago), TE Daniel Hardy (Minnesota), OG Mike Iupati (San Francisco), S Shiloh Keo (Houston), WR Max Komar (Chicago), DE Aaron Lavarias (New England), FB Eddie Williams (Cleveland).
Arbitrary top five list
Three-star-or-fewer QBs in recruiting class of 2006
1. Colin Kaepernick, Nevada.
2. Sam Bradford, Oklahoma.
3. Andy Dalton, T.C.U.
4. Ricky Stanzi, Iowa.
5. Todd Reesing, Kansas.
Robb Akey (Weber State ’88), 19-43 over five seasons at Idaho. The Vandals took a serious slide backwards last fall, losing at least 10 games for the first time since 2008 and the third time overall since Akey took over in 2007. So why does Akey have this level of job security? Because the previous two seasons, from 2009-10, found Idaho actually factoring into the F.B.S. bowl mix; in 2009, the former Washington State defensive coordinator, 3-21 through his first two years in Moscow, lead the program to its most wins since 1998 and second-most in a single season since joining the F.B.S. a year earlier. His team’s success in 2009 vaulted Akey into the mix with a handful of F.B.S. openings, though he did not interview for any open position. Perhaps other programs were wise to be patient, waiting for Akey to replicate his one bowl trip — since winning the Humanitarian Bowl to cap the 2009 season, the Vandals are 8-17. Even with Idaho’s recent step back, there is no denying the effect Akey has had on the program. While still lagging behind most of the WAC, the Vandals are no longer the clear win they were through 2008, even if that seemed to be the case a year ago. One thing about Akey’s future is perfectly clear: unlike Tom Cable and Nick Holt, big names who flamed out with the Vandals, he’ll always be known as the coach who won at Idaho. While Akey’s job is secure, he will need to work another miracle to get the Vandals back into bowl play in 2012.
Tidbit (coaching edition) Idaho’s new offensive coordinator is Jason Gesser, the former Washington State quarterback who spent last season as Akey’s running backs coach. Gesser has moved quickly; in 2010, he was the head coach and athletic director at a high school in Washington. Gesser replaces Steve Axman, who retired in December after five seasons with the program. Given Gesser’s lack of experience, Akey was wise to team him with new wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator Mike Levenseller, who spent the last 19 seasons as an assistant at Washington State — serving as the offensive coordinator during Gesser’s junior and senior seasons. The third new addition to Akey’s staff is offensive line coach and run game coordinator Gordy Shaw, who replaces John McDonnel. This is Shaw’s second go-round with the Vandals, joining a one-year stay in 1989, when he was, believe it or not, Idaho’s defensive coordinator.
Players to watch
Gesser has said that he’d like his offense to be attacking, though whether the Vandals can be aggressive will depend solely on quarterback play. As of today, the Vandals don’t have a quarterback. Well, they a quarterback — at least three, actually — but Idaho doesn’t have a starting quarterback, and won’t name one until August, if not a day or two before the season opener against Eastern Washington. The Vandals should save everyone the drama and just name Dominique Blackman the starter today.
Blackman, a former transfer from Old Dominion, is Idaho’s best option. While junior Taylor Davis might give Idaho more athleticism at the position, Blackman’s ability as a passer gives this offense its best shot at explosiveness. You saw this during Idaho’s spring game, when Blackman completed 13 of 22 attempts for 176 yards and a score — that touchdown, a 69-yard strike, was the highlight of the scrimmage. Davis simply trails behind Blackman as a passer, and while the Vandals could use his running ability in certain packages, Idaho won’t survive if it can’t move the ball through the air. Akey and Gesser have said that the competition will continue in August, but in my mind, Blackman’s is Idaho’s best option.
And the Vandals might not need Davis’ legs if Ryan Bass, a former Arizona State transfer, can remain healthy for an entire season. Bass was expected to play a significant role for Idaho last fall, but was limited to seven games due to injury; for most of the year, the Vandals were led by since-graduated seniors Princeton McCarty and Kama Bailey. With that pair gone, it’s vital that Bass lives up to the expectations that surrounded his arrival prior to the 2010 season. There’s no questioning the ability, and there’s no doubt that he’ll get every chance to land 200-plus carries as the top man in Idaho’s one-back system. Though he missed the spring game due to injury, JUCO transfer James Baker, a bruiser, should help Bass carry the load.
Now that Idaho has a wide receivers coach — Levenseller wasn’t officially brought on board until early April — it would help to have, you know, proven receivers. Idaho has one of those: Mike Scott, a former JUCO transfer, led the Vandals in receptions (55) and receiving yards (691) last fall. Idaho also returns senior Justin Veitung, who has 44 receptions over the last two years, but the cupboard slowly drips dry after this pair.
Every receiver on the roster has a chance to break into the rotation. Ken McRoyal and Daniel Micheletti had strong spring games; each shuffled in and out of the starting lineup last fall, though the pair combined for only 13 receptions. Former JUCO transfer Blake Bledsoe, a converted quarterback — he has good bloodlines — played well enough during the spring to earn a spot in the rotation. What Idaho does have is a pair of big-bodied targets in Mike LaGrone (21 receptions for 262 yards) and Taylor Elmo (17 for 162); it’s up to Gesser and Levenseller to put them to good use. This receiver corps isn’t striking fear into anyone.
While Akey shook up his offensive staff, Idaho stood pat on defense. When it comes to the coaches, at least; in terms of personnel, the Vandals must replace six starters — two up front, two at linebacker and two along the back end. How the Vandals fare defensively hinges entirely on how well last season’s understudies step into starting roles. Actually, how well Idaho fares defensively depends on, in a way, the offense: if the Vandals can move the ball and keep this defense on the sidelines more than it did last fall, they might allow less than 30 points per game for the second time in three years.
Is this defense terrible? No, not really. But there are holes to fill, and the defense as a whole must take a step forward across the board. The Vandals really did nothing well last fall: stop the run, defend the pass, get to the quarterback, force turnovers — and so on down the line.
Where Idaho is strong, surprisingly enough, is at linebacker. This is a group that lost two strong senior starters in Korey Toomer and Tre’Shawn Robinson; Toomer was one of the WAC’s best linebackers in terms of getting into the backfield, while Robinson led the team in tackles. The Vandals landed a huge boost when Homer Mauga (47 tackles, 6.5 for loss) was granted a sixth season of eligibility. He’ll replace Toomer on the strong side while former JUCO transfer Su’a Tuala, the star of the spring, according to Akey, steps in for Robinson in the middle. With senior Conrad Scheidt (93 tackles) entrenched on the weak side and Robert Siavii back from the injury — he led the team in tackles in 2010 — the Vandals’ linebacker corps is the strength of the entire team.
But there’s major work to be done elsewhere, beginning in the secondary. Gary Walker (109 tackles) is entrenched at free safety, but the Vandals are still unsure where to go at strong safety, where they lost Quin Ashley. One option is former JUCO transfer Thaad Thompson, who was part of the secondary rotation in 2010 but missed last season due to injury. There’s potential at cornerback, but outside of senior Aaron Grymes — he could earn all-WAC honors — there’s little in the way of proven production.
What Idaho needs is a cornerback to step up, and here’s looking in the direction of three prime candidates for the starting role: Dion Bass, Tracy Carter and A.J. Annelus. The first is a future starter, but as a true sophomore, is he ready? Carter, a junior, has shown an ability to play a third cornerback role while doing a nice job on special teams. Annelus has yet to play a major role on this defense, but he was a fairly well-regarded recruit coming off the JUCO ranks last winter.
Akey likes his defensive line, though earlier this month, he did point out that Idaho could use more bodies. What the Vandals probably have is five useful linemen; having six or seven would give the defense optimal depth. Like Tuala at linebacker, senior end Benson Mayowa (17 tackles, 4.5 for loss) had a nice spring — though going against Idaho’s depleted offensive line helped, of course. He’s entrenched at one end spot while Maxx Forde, Vince Keener and Quentin Bradley battle to join him in the starting lineup.
The interior of the line took its lumps last fall, allowing 879 over the final three games, but there’s enough youth back in the fold to expect some improvement. What the Vandals need is stronger play from sophomores Karel Kearney, Dontae Scott and Jesse Davis — three underclassmen who will form the top group at the position.
Why postseason awards are just silly: Bobby Cowan might have been all-American, but he was also a second-team all-WAC selection. Explain that, if you please. Cowan, a senior, is Idaho’s second straight all-American at the position, joining his predecessor, T.J. Conley. Last fall, he finished second in the F.B.S. in averaging 46.4 yards per punt; more than a third of his punts traveled more than 50 yards, often bailing out an inept offense. His special teams partner, senior kicker Trey Farquhar, has made six field goals of 50-plus yards in his career.
Position battle(s) to watch
Offensive line Five linemen missed time during the spring with one ailment or another, slowing down Idaho’s attempts to rebuild an offensive front that must replace three starters. While the Vandals are transitioning to a new system — which includes a new blocking scheme — Akey and Shaw did have a starting five in my mind entering the spring, by and large; what the injuries do, in short, is prevent Idaho’s projected starting five from taking key springtime snaps as a group. The Vandals could have used the spring; it’s during spring ball that a new-look line develops into a cohesive unit.
The two returning starters were in action, which does help. One, center Mike Marboe, may only be a sophomore, but he’s taken on a mentor role on a line nearly devoid of senior leadership. Former JUCO transfer A.J. Jones, an immediate starter since arriving on campus last summer, will start at right guard. But of the five linemen out with injury during the spring, two were would-be starters: Guy Reynolds will get first crack at left guard, while Jordan Johnson was viewed as a potential replacement at either left or right tackle. A third injured linemen, sophomore Spencer Beale, spent last season as Matt Cleveland’s backup at blind side tackle; obviously, missing the spring hurts Beale’s chances. Basically, Idaho knows what it’s doing at center and right guard and has some idea of what it’ll do at left guard and both tackle spots, but nothing will be resolved until the team retakes the field in August. For now, Shaw’s working with a patchwork unit — and when it comes to a depth chart, everything’s written in pencil, not ink.
Game(s) to watch
I see Idaho losing four of its first five, which makes a date with New Mexico State on Oct. 6 the biggest game of the season. Another loss there — going with my projected scenario — drops the Vandals to 1-5, and you can pretty much write of the season from there. But a win could move Idaho within two games of .500 with Texas State on deck, and a two-game winning streak would boost this team’s confidence heading into the heart of WAC play. Over the last five games of the season, the Vandals play Texas-San Antonio and four likely bowl teams.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell This team is an enigma. You simply can’t predict the unpredictable: Idaho will play five or six close games, and it’s impossible to project just how the Vandals will fare in games decided by, say, a touchdown or less. In 2009, when Idaho made its magical bowl run, it was a near certainty that it would find a way to pull games out in the fourth quarter — eight wins by 15 points or less, remember. Over the last two seasons, however, the Vandals have seemingly lost their cool when it counts, making the one small error, whether mental or physical, that means the difference between victory and defeat. And barring four or five narrow wins, I don’t see any reason why the Vandals are poised to make a substantial improvement on last year’s disappointing finish. Simply put, there’s not a whole lot to like on either side of the ball. While I like Blackman as Idaho’s starter, there’s a reason why Akey has yet to name his starting quarterback: he’s still undecided. The offensive line lost valuable time due to injuries during the spring. There are no offensive skill players of consequence, minus the possibility that Bass has a big senior season at running back. While Gesser and Levenseller might eventually make a good team, look for the Vandals to struggle grasping this new system for much of the coming season. In all, Idaho is currently in a position where it’s relying on the defense to win games. The linebacker corps is strong, but let’s be serious: Idaho’s not winning games on defense. While Idaho should win three or four games, two are coming against Texas State and Texas-San Antonio.
Dream season Idaho beats Bowling Green Wyoming, New Mexico State, San Jose State and Utah State by a combined 14 points. Wins over Eastern Washington, Texas State and Texas-San Antonio come by a combined 28 points; laughers in comparison. Seven wins and a bowl game.
Nightmare season The Vandals open with six straight losses — yes, even to Eastern Washington — before getting in the win column against Texas State. Wins over the Bobcats and Roadrunners save the Vandals from a last-place finish in the WAC, but it’s not a successful season by any stretch.
In case you were wondering
Where do Idaho fans congregate? The options grow each summer. At first, all I had was GoVandals.net. Then came the Web site of The Idaho Statesman, though the paper is very heavy on the Boise State coverage. Last fall, a loyal reader took advantage of the opportunity to list any options I may have missed. Per his suggestions, take a look at the Web site of the Lewiston Tribune and the blog Vandal Nation.
Idaho’s all-name nominee DE Maxx Forde.
Through 12 teams 38,740.
Who is No. 112? Two former head coaches at tomorrow’s university would go on to win a national championship with another program.
Tags: Aaron Grymes, Benson Mayowa, Bobby Cowan, Conrad Scheidt, Dominique Blackman, Gary Walker, Gordy Shaw, Idaho, Jason Gesser, Justin Veitung, Mike Levenseller, Mike Marboe, Mike Scott, Robb Akey, Robert Siavii, Ryan Bass, Su'a Tuala, Taylor Davis, Trey Farquhar, WAC
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