Fresno State Non-Conference Preview: Idaho Vandals
What will life look like for the Idaho Vandals after the FBS?
What kind of fight will Idaho bring to Fresno State’s season opener?
- Eighteen months ago, the program completed its first nine-win campaign since 1998 with a wild win in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
- Ten months ago, the Vandals looked like they might begin a dark horse campaign for the Sun Belt title with a convincing win over Sacramento State.
- Six months ago, Idaho closed its season with a 24-10 win at Georgia State, finishing its 22-year FBS stint with a .331 winning percentage.
Now, the Vandals begin life as part of the Big Sky Conference and will begin their FCS experience on the road at Bulldog Stadium. What can Fresno State expect from their opening foe?
Location: Moscow, ID
Mascot: Joe Vandal
Conference: Big Sky (FCS)
2016 Record: 4-8 (3-5 Sun Belt)
Head Coach: Paul Petrino (19-41 overall). Heading into his sixth season at the Vandals’ head coach, Petrino hopes to engineer a rebound despite losing a host of key players on both sides of the ball. If their fortunes in one-possession games change — Idaho went just 2-5 in games decided by eight points or less in 2017 — they could surprise as contenders in their new conference home.
LB Kaden Elliss
In 2017, Idaho linebackers ranked 4th in Havoc Rate and, with Tony Lashley’s departure for state rival Boise State, Elliss stands to be the unit’s primary playmaker. After collecting 7.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and five interceptions in 2016, Elliss finished second in the Sun Belt last year with 16 TFLs, six sacks and two forced fumbles. Though the Bulldogs often played mistake-free football on offense, they’ll need to know where #3 is at all times.
QBs Colton Richardson and Mason Petrino
It’s never easy to follow the most productive player in a program’s history, but sophomore Richardson and junior Petrino will have to do just that in replacing Matt Linehan. Both saw time under center near the end of 2017 when Linehan missed time with injury, but the results were fairly modest. It’s possible, according to head coach Petrino, that both will see action in September.
WR David Ungerer
Idaho must replace three of its top four receivers, which makes Ungerer the lone veteran and probable number-one target. Though he had just 39 catches and 432 yards, Ungerer grabbed six touchdowns and chipped in with a 68.4% catch rate. Chances are he’ll have a difficult time against Fresno State’s talented secondary, but odds are he’ll have plenty of opportunities to produce.
P/K Cade Coffey
The sophomore pulled double duty on special teams last fall, acting as both punter and kicker for the Vandals. He was fine in both roles — Idaho ranked 78th in the FBS in net punting and Coffey went 12-of-17 on field goal attempts — and it’s likely that he’ll see plenty of work if the Idaho offense scuffles.
DBs Jalen Hoover and Sedrick Thomas
Idaho’s sophomore duo played a key role in a surprisingly tough pass defense last fall: The Vandals ranked second in Sun Belt play in opponents’ quarterback rating and allowed just eight touchdowns in conference action. Hoover and Thomas combined for three interceptions and 8.5 tackles for loss as freshmen, so they won’t be intimidated by the Bulldogs’ stable of talented receivers.
What happens when you lose a four-year starter at quarterback, your top running back, and your top two receivers? Petrino and Richardson have just 96 combined pass attempts, so chances are they’ll want to turn to the running game. Isaiah Sanders is back, but he lost over a half-yard per carry from 2016 to 2017, so it might be time for someone like sophomore Dylan Thigpen, a rare three-star recruit, to step up.
The receiving corps is even more of a mystery beyond Ungerer. Tight end John Wysocki started six games and might be in line for a bigger role, and receiver Jante Boston saw action in ten games, as well. Whoever steps up, though, will have to help the Vandals improve upon a Success Rate that ranked just 112th nationally last fall.
While the offense is reloading, the Idaho defense still has a bit of last year’s star power. Elliss and fellow linebacker Ed Hall (three interceptions) will anchor the middle of the field, while Hoover, Thomas and Lloyd Hightower highlight a tough secondary. The defensive line will see the most significant overhaul, but junior D.J. Henderson (4.5 TFL) should be a key contributor. They were tough to score upon last year, finishing in the FBS’s top 20 on opponents’ points per trip inside the 40, and could provide a challenge if the Bulldogs offense gets off to a slow start.
The Bulldogs made hay against their FCS opponent a year ago, but Idaho isn’t the typical such foe. Despite some talent on defense, however, it doesn’t seem likely that the Vandals can keep up with a deep offense that will wear them down in ways the Sun Belt couldn’t often do last fall. Their strengths did get hammered by superior opponents, most notably Missouri and Appalachian State, so Idaho fans may as well prepare for a long evening. Fresno State 35, Idaho 10