Idaho Vandals

Turnovers, penalties prove more impactful than Idaho’s stout third-down defense, run game

Running back Nick Romano, center, has helped Idaho average 177 yards per game on the ground, which ranks fourth in the Big Sky Conference.
Running back Nick Romano, center, has helped Idaho average 177 yards per game on the ground, which ranks fourth in the Big Sky Conference. The Lewiston Tribune

Six weeks down for Idaho football, six weeks to go.

Like many of the 125 other teams in the Football Championship Subdivision, the Vandals (2-4, 0-2 Big Sky) have taken their FBS defeats, fluffed their resume with a Division II win and met two league opponents.

So where do they stand among their peers at the midway point of the 2019 season? Idaho faces Portland State (3-3, 1-1) at 3 p.m. MT on Saturday at Hillsboro Stadium in Hillsboro, Oregon.

Based on stats, UI doesn’t especially stand out, except for a few individual bright spots and a couple of notable banes in its game.

In particular, penalties have been an issue.

“You’re gonna get some hustle penalties, those happen,” Idaho coach Paul Petrino said. “The ones that have to stop are the pre-snap penalties. Those are the ones that we can’t have.”

In its past two games, Idaho has committed a handful of unsportsmanlike penalties, including a pair on the coach.

Three of them were drive-killers and two induced a 27-24 upset loss Sept. 28 at Northern Colorado. In all, the Vandals have been flagged 56 times for a loss of 522 yards — the most by far in the Big Sky in penalty count and yardage, and seventh-most in the FCS.

They average a 9.3-yard loss per penalty, which indicates higher-yardage infractions like personal fouls and pass interference calls.

“(The secondary) is getting better, but our communication sometimes (falters),” said senior corner Lloyd Hightower, who heads a new-look backfield featuring the league’s No. 8 pass efficiency and a safety group that’s become shallow with injuries and the transfer of Satchel Escalante. “Really, it’s my fault. I need to speak up.”

Another of the Vandals’ issues has been their 11 total turnovers, nine of them by quarterback Mason Petrino, who’d flashed an upside of ball security last season.

He’s tied for the most turnovers in the Big Sky with nine. His six interceptions are second-most in the league, and he’s contributed to UI’s minus-4 turnover margin (last in the conference). Six of his giveaways have come in the past two weeks — three interceptions at UNC and three lost fumbles last week in a 41-35 loss to No. 4 Weber State.

“Just gotta feel that clock in his head and (we) gotta protect a little bit better,” Paul Petrino said. “Gotta get the ball off or tuck it and run, or if it does come out we all gotta jump on it. No matter what, always assume that it is (a fumble).”

For an offensive line that had been highly touted for its veteran qualities, the pass-protection has been troubling. Despite missing two starters in three games, UI’s rushing offense logs 177 yards per game, which stands fourth in the league. But it has allowed 17 sacks, just three short of all of last season. That mark is the third-worst in the conference.

Granted, the Vandals were bruised for seven sacks against Football Bowl Subdivision contender Penn State, which boasts one of the nation’s elite defensive fronts.

The returns from injury of center Conner Vrba and quick guard Matthew Faupusa should “really help out our depth there,” offensive coordinator Kris Cinkovich said.

Sophomore Darius Archie has been filling in at guard, and strong tackle Logan Floyd has seen more time at center so far this year than he has at a post where he was awarded a freshman All-America plaudit by Phil Steele after 2018.

But with UI’s reputable, many-headed rushing game and furthering development of its skill players, the Vandals’ offense has seen a notable boost since this time last season.

It’s No. 62 in the FCS (385 yards per game) and eighth in a league that prides itself on piling up yards. With long-running, methodical drives, Idaho is second in the Big Sky and 20th in the country in time of possession (32 minutes per game).

Despite missing three quarters with a leg injury against Weber State, senior receiver Jeff Cotton ranks seventh in the FCS with his 556 yards and eighth with his eight catches per game. In league play, he’s second to Montana’s Samuel Akem (570) in yardage.

Midseason candidates for national praise on the defensive side include linebackers Charles Akanno, at buck, and Tre Walker in the middle.

Akanno, who’s effectively replaced Kaden Elliss and hounds the backfield almost every down, has nine tackles for loss, the second-most in the league and 24th in the FCS.

Walker, a trenchant 6-foot-1, 235-pound sophomore, has blossomed into one of the FCS’ best. He’s got a league-high 69 tackles, the fourth-most in the nation.

“Just trying to have fun and do my job,” Walker said. “Last year, I was just trying to build myself. I took mentoring from Kaden and Ed (Hall) and really improved.”

The Vandals defense is predicated on front-seven play, but it’s permitted about 200 yards per game, 11th in the Big Sky — also counting Penn State’s 331 yards. UI has a solid 11 sacks (seven fewer than last year’s total) and for the most part, its box has been commendable in bottling interior runs, playing its part in the Big Sky’s leading third-down defense (28.4 percent).

“If we can continue to push it up inside and corral ’em from the outside, then I think that’s good,” Paul Petrino said. “If we can get a couple more guys to step up like that, I think we’ll be in good shape.”

At least UI’s defense has forced six turnovers. That’s a stark difference from last year at this time, when it had just one.

ISU hopes for homecoming boost

The Idaho State football team will try for its fourth straight homecoming win when it hosts North Dakota at 1 p.m. Saturday at Holt Arena in Pocatello.

The Bengals (2-3, 1-1 Big Sky) are just 2-5 all-time against the Fighting Hawks (3-2), but ISU has been the better team in recent history, winning two of the last three matchups.

Senior linebacker Kody Graves (Skyview High) needs just four tackles against North Dakota to reach 200 for his career at Idaho State.

North Dakota is playing a Big Sky schedule as an independent in 2019 and will not be eligible for the league’s FCS playoff automatic-qualifying bid. The Fighting Hawks will join the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020.

C of I hits the road

A bye week couldn’t stop the College of Idaho football team from moving up in the latest AFCA-NAIA Top 25 Coaches’ Poll.

The Yotes reached No. 8, which is the highest ranking in program history.

The Frontier Conference favorites take a 10-game winning streak dating back to last season on the road this week. C of I (4-0) faces Carroll College (2-2) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Nelson Stadium in Helena, Montana. It is the only grass field the Yotes will play on during the regular season.

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