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Interviews with Football Frenemies: Idaho Vandals Edition

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The Idaho Vandals are looking for a bounce back season in 2019 after a disappointing 2018 showing.

NCAA Football: Idaho at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

A new season means new expectations and new life for college football programs across the country. That’s no different for the Penn State Nittany Lions or Idaho Vandals. But on Saturday, preseason expectations go out the window as the two programs separated by over 2,000 miles and a whole subdivision of college football face off on the gridiron for the first time.

Saturday’s matchup will mark Penn State’s first game against an FCS opponent since 2010 when the Nittany Lions took on and defeated the Indiana State Sycamores 41-7. The result by the end of Saturday’s game shouldn’t be much different. The talent disparity between the two programs is so great that the Nittany Lions should be able to play their second and third team quite a bit and still have no worries about the result of the game. After all, Penn State is considered the 10th most talented team in the country according to 247Sports.

For more on the Idaho Vandals, we reached out to Idaho beat writer Peter Harriman of the The Spokesman Review to learn more about the the former FCS power looking to return to their glory days.

Black Shoe Diaries: Idaho went 4-7 last season in their first season back at the FCS level, what was the overall feeling around the program regarding last season and what are the expectations for 2019?

Peter Harriman: Last season was eye-opening for Idaho. Running quarterbacks and the generally wide-open, use-the-whole-field brand of Big Sky offense were problems the Vandals never really solved. A win against 25th ranked North Dakota was a highlight, and the Vandals left it all on the field in Bozeman, where Montana State barely escaped with a victory that turned on a disputed call on a missed extra point. But blowout losses to Idaho State and Eastern Washington set a tone that Idaho, in general, was not up to the challenge. Very frustrating. Since the Vandals used to run this league from the 1980s to mid 1990s, I think there is wide expectation that they can get their problems fixed – and they better.

Black Shoe Diaries: The Vandals offense last year seemed to have it’s ups-and-downs but overall was about average overall. What are the expectations for the offense in 2019 and what should Penn State fans expect on Saturday afternoon?

Peter Harriman: Idaho regularly played two quarterbacks last year. Coach Paul Petrino says he expects to use both Mason Petrino and Colton Richardson again in early games. But he wants to pick a starter by the time league play starts, Injuries hampered both last year. Mason Petrino played with an injured throwing shoulder, and Richardson missed several games with ankle and head injuries. If the quarterbacks are on and can reach them, Idaho has some talented players on offense. Mason Petrino throws a wicked 30-to-40-yard fade to Jeff Cotton, and Richardson has a cannon that can really challenge defenders in the mid-range passing game. Cotton, Cutrell Haywood and Connor Whitney are all experienced receivers who can pluck a 10-yard Richardson rocket out of the air before defenders can get up on them. The offensive line is experienced, maybe a little small by Big 10 standards but not tiny, and the Vandals have regularly used a half-dozen running backs in preseason practice. Many are going to be playing their first college football game Saturday, but there is a bunch of them.

Black Shoe Diaries: What are the expectations surrounding the quarterback position in 2019? Especially that of Mason Petrino. How is the running back situation shaping up after the departure of Isaiah Saunders?

Peter Harriman: Arm strength has always been the biggest issue for Mason Petrino, who has played his career with a chronic throwing shoulder injury. Beginning last spring, however, it seemed to have improved significantly, and he added notable velocity. It really shows in his short to intermediate throws, which come in more on a line than they used to. He always did have a good touch on a long fade, where a big arc can be an advantage, and he still has that. Richardson seems to have most improved in decision making. He took hits last year because he seemed to hold the ball too long not trusting what he was seeing. In preseason camp he is getting the ball away quicker. Depth ought to be an asset at running back. A freshman, Nick Romano, might start. But Idaho can go big, with 240-pounders Roshaun Johnson and Aundre Carter or quick with Marquese Albert and Kiahn Martinez. Dylan Thigpen missed all last year with a serious knee injury. Penn State is a test to see if he is recovered. If he is, at 214 pounds he is a one-cut downhill runner.

Black Shoe Diaries: How do you expect the Idaho offensive line to handle Penn State’s dominant front seven that lead FBS in sacks per game last season?

Peter Harriman: Idaho almost certainly is not going to win the majority of battles on the line with Penn State’s defense. But if it can get even close to enough standoffs, I think Richardson’s arm might somewhat equalize things. If he gets the ball away quickly, Idaho doesn’t have to block forever, and his throwing can keep linebackers on their heels.

Black Shoe Diaries: Outside of Petrino and wide receiver Jeff Cotton, are there any players that Penn State fans should watch out for on offense?

Peter Harriman: Cotton is in a bunch of receiver packages with Cutrell Haywood. Those two have been pushing each other throughout preseason camp. Connor Whitney is also a good pass-catching tight end.

Black Shoe Diaries: Last year, the Vandals defense struggled and allowed 37-points per game, what are the expectations surrounding the defense in 2019? Who are a few players to watch out for?

Peter Harriman: Penn State isn’t going to see anyone larger than Jonah Kim and Noah Elliss. The defensive tackles are legitimate 350-pounders, with flat stomachs. It will be interesting to see if, in a real game, Kayode Rufai can match the edge rushing production he has provided in practice. Linebacker was the strength of Idaho’s defense last season, and that looks like it could be again. Tre Walker has taken over in the middle. The secondary should be vastly better. Lloyd Hightower, a senior, is Idaho’s most experienced cornerback and probably its best in coverage. Western Michigan graduate transfer Davontae Ginwright really stands out at safety, a position where the Vandals struggled last year. This year they are deeper, faster, and in practice at least, better tacklers all across the secondary.

Black Shoe Diaries: A few betting lines have the Nittany Lions as nearly 40-point favorites. How do you expect this game to go for the Vandals?

Peter Harriman: I think Idaho catching Penn State in a season opener, with a new quarterback is good enough to hang with the Nittany Lions into the second half. If it can manage that, I believe it can avoid collapsing and being blown out. My pick is Penn State by 13 points.

Black Shoe Diaries: Anything else you would like to add about the Vandals?

Peter Harriman: All-America kicker/punter Cade Coffey can make Penn State’s offense play on a long field all day, and if the game becomes a kicking battle, he can hold his own on field goals.

We’d like to thank Peter once again for his time and for answering our questions, to learn even more about the Vandals, make sure to check out Peter’s writings on the Vandals at The Spokesman Review.