Paul Petrino will bring his Idaho Vandals into Husky Stadium on Saturday looking to spoil Washington's day. His squad has 8 offensive starters returning and has one of the top QBs in the Sun Belt Conference leading the charge. Petrino is only 7-29 overall after going 4-8 last year, with 2 close losses keeping them from bowl eligibility.
They're a hungry team and it's possible they have a promising season on offense ahead of them. They got their season off to the right start last week, beating former Washington DL coach Jeff Choate's Montana State Bobcats, 20-17. Despite this bit of optimism emanating from the program, in March the Sun Belt voted to terminate Idaho's membership, and they will drop to FCS starting in the 2018 season.
Becoming bowl eligible in one of their final FBS seasons would be a huge accomplishment, and a victory over Washington, as unlikely as it would be, would take them one step closer. Let's see how the Vandals' offense will try to make that happen.
The teams' last meeting provided Steve Sarkisian his first win as Washington's head coach. They ran a pro-style offense then, with a strong-armed QB, big offensive line, and physical receivers. That season they were pretty successful on offense and won their bowl game, only the second bowl game in program history. The 2016 attack shares some similarities, where the pass game behind QB Matt Linehan expects to be a strength. They ranked 44th in the nation last year in total offense, scoring 30 points per game. They were 26th in red zone offense, and were top 20 in tackles for loss allowed.
They lose their 1000-yard rusher from last year, and developing a strong run game will be key to help salt away games if they take a late lead. Close losses last year to South Alabama and New Mexico State are the types of results this offense will hope to change this year.
Matt Linehan (2015): 2,972 yards, 16 TDs, 11 INT, 63.1% completion, 7.6 yds/attempt, 135 QB rating.
Replace Matt Linehan's name above with Jake Browning, and you'd hardly be lying about the numbers. They shared nearly identical stats last year, with Browning throwing one less interception and owning a slightly higher QB rating. Linehan can throw the rock and it's clear why there's hope about the Vandal offense this year. He did miss spring camp with a foot injury, but returned healthy for the season-opening victory against Montana State. However, his stat line was actually quite poor in the game, only going 8/22 for 128 yards and an interception.
Despite the rocky start, the son of Dallas Cowboys' offensive coordinator Scott Linehan was named to the preseason All-Sun Belt second team. Last season the passing offense graded out decently in efficiency, ranking 69th in the nation, and put up both solid scoring (30.1 points/game) and passing yardage (281.3 yds/game) totals. What gets unnoticed is his running ability - he's not a dual threat, but he scored 5 TDs rushing and ran for 234 yards.
Aaron Duckworth (2015): 72 rushes for 253 yards and 3 TDs.
There's always uncertainty when you have to replace a 1,000-yard rusher, and this is a key question for the Vandals this year. Duckworth, the leading returning rusher, answered that question quite well by going for 108 yards and 2 TDs on 14 carries last week. This was a big question mark heading into the season and if his performance last week is a sign of things to come, this will make the Idaho attack that much more balanced and dangerous. Third downs weren't great last season, converting just over 40% of attempts, so getting the run game going on 1st and 2nd downs is crucial.
If Duckworth can create 3rd and manageable situations for his QB with productive runs on the first two downs, the offense will be able to stay on the field and likely generate points. Behind Duckworth are Isaiah Saunders, Denzal Brantley, and true freshman Dylan Thigpen. Duckworth is clearly the first option but Saunders and Brantley will get carries too. They got 5 and 6 apiece last week, respectively, and each averaged over 6 yards per carry.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
WR Callen Hightower (2015): 57 catches for 749 yards and 2 TDs
TE Trent Cowan (2015): 48 catches for 624 yards and 4 TDs
TE/WR Deon Watson (2015): 42 catches for 551 yards and 7 TDs
Despite having a lackluster game last week, the returning pass catchers for Idaho put up good numbers last year. A 57-catch season is nothing to scoff at, and returning to the same offense with the same QB provides a ton of experience. Trent Cowan is Linehan's safety valve and go-to dumpoff guy for short gains. He's also one of their bigger red zone threats with 4 TDs.
Deon Watson is a big body at 6'4" and brings the Darrell Daniels type of play to the offense. He plays tight end but lines up out wide a lot using his size as a mismatch. He's very dangerous, hauling in 7 TDs last year, and can generate the big play - he had 67 yards on just 2 catches last week. Jacob Sannon and David Ungerer are coming off injuries and could be in the mix for playing time.
The Vandals' offensive line might very well be the strength of the offense. They're huge, averaging 6'5" and 307 pounds across the board. They return 4 starters and are anchored by big 6'6" 322 pound Jordan Rose at tackle. They have a combined 87 starts from 2015, and were already a good unit, though allowing 2.42 sacks per game is worrisome. That said, they seem to prevent defenders from making too many plays in the backfield as they were one of the best teams in preventing tackles for loss. That may be a product of a pass-heavy offense but it's still a good statistic in their favor.
If last week is any indication, the run game and their blocking have improved, as every RB last week averaged at least 6.5 yards per carry. That's some push, and the big uglies for Idaho can get it done.
This is an intriguing offense on paper, and I'm trying not to read much into their narrow victory over Montana State last week. It was only their first game, and playing against a team with a new head coach, and one who specializes on defense at that. Either way, I actually expect this offense to have a little more success than Rutgers did, at least when our starters are in. Idaho has undoubtedly less talent across the board but won't be breaking players into a new system they weren't recruited for. This is the fourth year in Petrino's system with a QB and some good pass-catchers, all experienced in the system. On top of that, they have a big and experienced OL.
We all know Washington's defense is close to elite, so shutting down the Idaho offense with our starters should be a realistic expectation. Still, I think with their experience they'll be more efficient and dangerous than Rutgers was. There are some pieces to this offense, but it's strength on strength - Idaho's passing game against Washington's secondary, a secondary which has a knack for making average QBs look terrible and the best QBs in the nation look like mortals. Linehan is one of the best in the Sun Belt but will have a bad day on Saturday. Washington's D line should shut down the run game and force Linehan to pass, which usually works out well for opposing QBs in Husky Stadium. Right?