NCAA Football Preview - Idaho Vandals
By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: Since posting an 8-5 record in 2009 and making it to the postseason, the Vandals have been nowhere near as strong. In fact, Idaho has won a total of just nine games in the three seasons since earning that rare bowl bid which turned into a 43-42 victory over a pesky Bowling Green group. The squad closed out the 2011 campaign with three straight setbacks and the defeats just kept on coming in 2012 as well, with five more loses before the program logged a 26-18 win over a New Mexico State team that lost 11 in a row to finish out the season.
Unfortunately for the Vandals, who were playing their final season as a member of the Western Athletic Conference, they were right back in the loss column a week later versus Texas State, 38-7, which means they were 1-6 just past the midway point. On Oct. 20, the Vandals were blown out of the water by Louisiana Tech, one of the top scoring teams in the country, by a ridiculous 70-28 final. Due to the team's struggles, head coach Robb Akey was relieved of his duties in the middle of October, with offensive coordinator Jason Gesser stepping in on an interim basis. Brought on in 2007, Akey was just 1-7 in 2012 as his overall record dropped to a disappointing 20-50. Unfortunately for Gesser, he too had to deal with more lopsided defeats as the team lost all four games under his direction, closing with a 45-9 setback at Utah State.
Once the smoke cleared, the Vandals were hampered with a 1-11 record overall and were just 1-5 in conference play.
Dealing with a six-game slide to finish up the campaign, Idaho turned to former assistant coach Paul Petrino to guide them into the immediate future. Hired as the new head coach in December Petrino, who was on staff in Moscow between 1992-94, has been mostly tied to his brother, Bobby, during his coaching career, but is now ready to branch out on his own after most recently being the offensive coordinator at Arkansas in 2012.
"I'm very excited," Petrino said when introduced the first week of December. "It's a dream come true. I've wanted to be a head coach my whole life. I had a chance to come back out to the Northwest."
OFFENSE: Four times last season the Vandals were held to single digits in points scored, resulting in a scoring average of just 15.8 ppg which was last among the 120 programs at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. Honestly, Idaho can't get much worse on offense, then again they are breaking in a new starting quarterback in redshirt freshman Chad Chalich. The youngster has looked good in practice thus far, but very few signal-callers are able to make the leap from high school to college and make an immediate impact. If Chalich were one of those gems, surely he would have been scooped up by a more prominent program.
Some good news for Chalich is a pair of wide receivers in Najee Lovett and Jahrie Level who were second and third, respectively, in receptions a year ago, return. Lovett reeled in 50 passes for 548 yards and a team-best six touchdowns, while Jahrie caught four fewer balls, leading to 538 yards, but just two TDs. Averaging just slightly more than one passing score per game in 2012, the Vandals will have to greatly improve upon that mode of attack.
Another weapon for Chalich comes in the form of tight end Michael LaGrone who, despite catching just 16 balls a year ago, matched Level in touchdowns.
With a woeful 89.3 ypg on the ground, Idaho was awful at attacking the line of scrimmage with ball carriers. Then again, some of the team's weakness in that department stemmed from the fact that they were always playing from behind and could not afford to waste time on the clock. After ranking 116th in the country in rushing, the Vandals could fall even deeper into the hole this season because there is little experience and familiarity filling the positions behind the quarterback.
Getting back three starters along the offensive line is certainly a positive, but if Chalich struggles to make decisions and find receivers and the youngsters filling in at running back don't produce almost immediately, it may not make much of a difference.
DEFENSE: The offense for the Vandals has a long road ahead, but it is not nearly as long the one that will be traveled by the defense. The unit struggled in nearly every facet of the game last year. With so many issues to contend with, Idaho, which held just one opponent (New Mexico State) under 20 points, ended up ranking 118th in the country with a whopping 42.4 ppg allowed.
To put it in proper perspective, Idaho scored a grand total of just 190 points all of last season, yet surrendered a collective 163 points in just the first quarter alone to opponents. Clearly, it only took 15 minutes more often than not for the defense to become disinterested in the proceedings.
Many of the defenders who were able to make any kind of an impact in 2012 are now gone, specifically the top six tacklers, which means the squad is again in rebuilding mode. Bradley Njoku is the top returning tackler for the group after posting 43 stops. He appeared in all 12 games but started just two, so assume that he'll elevate his play in order to earn more time this season.
Defensive end Maxx Forde was one of the more impressive performers with his five tackles for loss, four sacks and two fumble recoveries, but unless the rest of the defensive line meshes well opponents will be able to key on him and make sure he has even less of an influence moving forward.
SPECIAL TEAMS: For the last several years the Vandals were comfortable knowing that when the offense sputtered they still had one of the nation's top kickers in Trey Farquhar. A semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award as a senior, Farquhar was also named to the All-WAC First Team as he knocked through 19-of-25 field goal attempts, including 5-of-9 from 50 yards or more. Unfortunately, Farquhar is no longer around and that means Idaho will have to scramble to find an adequate replacement.
The battle for the placekicking duties comes down to a couple of freshmen in Austin Rehkow and Ryan Bordner. The latter was a perfect 55-of-55 in PATs in high school, but having made just 6-of-8 field goal attempts means he is not nearly as seasoned as Rehkow who knocked through a 67-yard field goal to set the Washington High School record and come within one yard of the national record.
"He's a great athlete," Petrino says of Rehkow. "That's what some people might not understand. He's a great basketball player and might punt. Anytime you have a great athlete, that's a plus because, in my opinion, they're more competitive...Austin will definitely challenge to be both the punter and kicker his first year."
OUTLOOK: With a new head coach comes new aspirations, but upon his hiring it sounded as though Petrino may have been shooting even beyond the stars with his expectations.
"We want to score a whole bunch of points, be explosive on offense and hit that quarterback on defense. We want to win a whole bunch of games and go to bowls."
With a new starting quarterback the Vandals are beginning from scratch on offense and there are only so many times a young group of players can surprise an opponent. Nevertheless, there are potential wins on the schedule, stemming from dates with North Texas, Northern Illinois, Old Dominion and New Mexico State.
Unfortunately, there are also huge road blocks in the form of road games at Washington State, Ole Miss and Florida State, not to mention a home test versus a Fresno State squad that needs to post decisive wins against opponents that it is supposed to dominate.
08/21 13:27:38 ET