MOSCOW — Earlier this week, Idaho football coach Paul Petrino sat his team down and shed some positive light on an unfavorable situation.
Sure, the Vandals are heading into Laramie, Wyoming, a gusty setting so highly elevated (7,165 feet) it’s hard to catch a breath.
Also, Idaho is a 25-point underdog against Wyoming (2-0), one of the Mountain West Conference’s premier teams that boasts a top-10 defense nationally in forcing turnovers.
Regardless, Petrino’s message was this: Last year, these were the kinds of games the Vandals fared best in, where their opponents “just try to line up and hit you,” as Petrino’s said many times before.
Idaho (1-1) fell an extra point short at eventual-playoff-team Montana State last October, then a month later toppled 25th-ranked North Dakota on a last-minute touchdown. The latter was easily the Vandals’ best of their four wins, and it was largely thanks to their endeavors up front and in the ground game.
To compete, Idaho will need all that and more when it squares off with Wyoming. Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. MDT today at War Memorial Stadium (ESPN3).
“I said that to the team Sunday, ‘They’re a better North Dakota,’” Petrino said of Wyoming. “They’re very similar in how they play the game.
“They’re just bigger and stronger.”
In those aforementioned 2018 matchups, Idaho’s hapless secondary appeared competent — even sometimes chock full of stars — against opposing quarterbacks more prone to hand it off or scurry forward themselves, rather than throw any kind of demanding pass.
The quarterbacks Idaho faced were around sub-50-percent in completion rate, and they looked as such when the Vandals packed the defensive box, hurrying and disrupting the already-middling pocket-passers.
Idaho will need to somehow get a replica of that against a far superior team, as well as quarterback containment, a trend lacking in their defense since the outset of the 2018 season.
“We really need to get more pressure from the guys up front; we can’t let a quarterback sit back there and have time like (Central Washington’s did),” Petrino said. “Right now, our percentages on third down are good, but we can’t let ’em have big plays on first and second down.”
Odds are, the Cowboys won’t look to test Idaho much in the air. On one hand, their ground game has accumulated 487 total yards, which is good enough to rank 25th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Otherwise, Wyoming quarterback Sean Chambers is completing only 41 percent of his passes, and the air attack has averaged under 100 yards through two games (127th nationally).
Cowboys coach Craig Bohl has highlighted that tendency as needing a spark, so it’s certainly possible Wyoming flips its script and tries to surprise Idaho’s secondary in hopes of a turnaround.
But Chambers excels where Idaho has toiled — he’s a quarterback who likes to run it.
Chambers, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound freshman, leads the Pokes in yards rushing with 170. That’s more than all but two quarterbacks in the FBS.
Simply put: “They’re going to run the ball a lot,” Petrino said. Idaho’s hopeful the bulk of that comes inside, where its linebackers and defensive line have been sufficient.
And “they’re big and physical up front on the O-line,” too, Petrino chipped in.
The same can be said of Wyoming’s defensive front, which ranks in the top 25 in stopping the run (2.56 yards per attempt). However, the Cowboys allow 8 yards per pass attempt and 409 per game, the third-worst mark in the FBS.
According to Casper Star-Tribune writer Davis Potter, those pass-defense pitfalls arise because of Wyoming’s strains in closing out on short and intermediate throws.
Sound familiar? It’s basically all the Vandals do.
When asked if he sees an edge in that regard, star Idaho receiver Jeff Cotton replied, “In a sense.”
“I’m confident in my ability; I’m confident in the other guys’ ability, so whoever we’re playing against, I think we have a good shot,” he said. “I wouldn’t say they have really any spotlight guys in the secondary.”
In the front seven, the luminaries are abundant. Any Vandal success will be predicated on the offensive line’s ability to hold and the quarterbacks’ abilities to maneuver and improvise.
That’s to say Mason Petrino and Colton Richardson will play, Paul Petrino confirmed. The coach plans to name a starter in the days after this game, an impending hard-nosed, bruising one, just like Petrino likes them.
NOTE: The game originally was scheduled as a home-and-home series, but Wyoming canceled the 2018 game scheduled for Moscow when Idaho’s move to the Football Championship Subdivision was announced. The Pokes will shell out about $400,000.