Idaho defense hopes to improve quickly

Idaho yielded 40 pointsin opener, faces tough Wyoming offense today.

dsouthorn@idahostatesman.comSeptember 7, 2013 

VANDALS FACE FORMER COACH Jason Gesser was promoted from offensive coordinator to interim head coach last season when Robb Akey was fired after eight games. The former Washington State standout quarterback said he understands there is a reason why he was passed over for the permanent head coaching gig in December. “To be honest, I’m a true believer that everything happens for a reason,” said Gesser, now the quarterbacks coach at Wyoming, where former Idaho head coach Chris Tormey is the defensive coordinator. “And this isn’t meant to be taken the wrong way, but I’m happy I’m here. Nothing against Idaho or anything, but I think that there’s a time and place for everything, and obviously that wasn’t the right time for me to be the head coach over there. It was time to come over here and learn some new things — to grow as a coach, learn from a new head coach and be around some new guys in a different organization. I think it worked out for the better (for both parties), in my opinion. I understand why I didn’t get the head job there. I’m a little young, I need to cut my teeth more and grow and learn some new things. I hold nothing against (Idaho Athletic Director) Rob Spear or anybody at Idaho. I hold that place in my heart, and (the opportunities are) something I’m truly thankful for.”

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Chock full of newcomers, the Vandals’ defense yielded 404 yards through the air in a season-opening 40-6 loss to North Texas last Saturday.

It was the best passing performance since 2007 for the Mean Green, who completed 28-of-34 passes.

On Saturday, Idaho draws an even bigger challenge in the Wyoming Cowboys on the road.

“They’re playing a lot better quarterback this week than they did last week,” Idaho coach Paul Petrino said.

That quarterback, Wyoming junior Brett Smith, threw for 383 yards and four TDs, plus rushed for 92 yards on eight carries in a 37-34 loss at then-No. 18 Nebraska in the Cowboys’ opener.

Smith’s new quarterbacks coach is Jason Gesser, who was on the Vandals’ staff in 2011 and 2012 and was the interim head coach the final four games last season after Robb Akey was fired.

“Brett had the fourth-best individual performance ever against Nebraska. … Can’t say enough about how well he played,” Wyoming coach Dave Christensen said of Smith’s 475 yards of total offense.

In the loss at Nebraska, Smith was not sacked as he led the Cowboys to 35 first downs and 602 total yards, but earlier this week, his attention was on the Vandals.

“Nebraska’s done. … Now it’s on to Idaho,” Smith said. “We’re focused on figuring out what we can do to put up some yards on that defense now.”

North Texas had 591 yards against Idaho and did not allow a sack, though the Mean Green are the best at protecting their passer, having given up only six sacks dating to the start of last season. After the game, Petrino said, “We got our butts kicked up front.”

“It was more of what their plan was — they threw a lot of quick screens, got the ball out of their hand real quick,” Petrino said.

Petrino added that while the Mean Green had an array of short passes, those often turned into longer gains because of missed tackles or an ill-timed penalty — one came on a third-and-26 with Idaho down 14-6. It kept alive a North Texas drive that took 15 plays to go 49 yards, eating up 6 minutes, 13 seconds and resulted in a touchdown.

“We had a lot of second- and third-and-longs, and you’ve got to make sure you make the tackle if they do complete it — and definitely not get a pass interference on a third-and-(26) on a 6-yard pass,” Petrino said.

Only one starter in the Vandals’ opener started more than four games in 2012, and four were playing in their first game at the FBS level. As for what he liked, Petrino pointed to the group’s physicality.

“There were some good hits, some big hits, some times they punished the guy that had the ball,” he said.

Technically speaking, the 40 points Idaho yielded were slightly better than last season’s average of 42.2 points per game. The Vandals also forced two North Texas turnovers and stopped Mean Green drives four times inside the Idaho 33 via turnover or downs. But it doesn’t get easier, with Wyoming this weekend and next weekend’s home opener against Northern Illinois, which played in the Orange Bowl in January.

“We’re not as far away as the score looked, but that’s all that matters,” Petrino said.

Dave Southorn: 377-6420,Twitter: @IDS_southorn

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