Even three consecutive one-win seasons can produce some positivity.
For the Idaho Vandals, the only constant in recent years has been that single victory in the win column. But adversity has created a closeness in the team that it hopes can result in, dare to say, a winning campaign.
“The whole aura is just of energy, everyone’s excited, everyone’s confident,” junior tight end Deon Watson said. “Confidence is what was missing here. We think we have a good chance to go to a bowl game.”
Senior defensive end Quinton Bradley echoed Watson’s sentiment.
“Older guys like myself, we’ve been through enough of these losses, we need to lead this team to wins,” he said. “It’s the most bonded we’ve been, no one’s cliqued up. We’re one unit.”
Idaho had a NCAA bowl ban for 2015 lifted in the spring after making strides academically. On the field, the strides haven’t quite been as immediately apparent.
The Vandals were outscored by an average of 28 points per game in 2013, but cut that to 12 last season. Five losses were by 14 points or fewer.
Giving coach Paul Petrino reason to think it will continue to trend upward is a returning quarterback in sophomore Matt Linehan, a potentially strong running game led by senior Elijhaa Penny and an experienced defense.
“I’m pretty excited that we can do all three,” Petrino said.
Winning the turnover battle will be key for the Vandals. Last season, they intercepted only eight passes while throwing 20 of their own. They also had only 18 sacks while allowing 41.
Petrino brought in former Washington State and Wyoming defensive coordinator Mike Breske and his attacking 3-4 scheme to improve the defense. The competition level has seemed to increase, most notably in the fact that senior Marc Millan (team-high 102 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss) is trying to fend off true freshman Kaden Elliss to start at one outside linebacker spot.
“I’ve been really happy to see that, to see guys battling each day no matter how much they’ve played or haven’t,” Petrino said.
The Vandals must cut down on their scoring defense, as they are 0-29 the last three seasons when giving up 34 or more points. Their three wins in that span all came when allowing fewer. To aid that, Idaho hopes to continue to improve their scoring output after going from 18 points per game to 25 last season. The offense hopes to rely on its offensive line, Penny and some change-of-pace backs to establish the ground game to help Linehan, too.
“I’ll be disappointed if we’re not a tough, hard-nosed offense,” offensive coordinator Kris Cinkovich said.
Getting stops also will help the offense, with Ray Guy Award finalist Austin Rehkow booming punts once again to put teams with their backs against the end zone.
Ready to end a slide, the Vandals feel confident, and are eager to prove it.
“We have work to do, but it’s my goal to let people know the Idaho Vandals are here and going to stay,” Watson said.