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Q&A with Vandal Nation

The excellent Idaho blog Vandal Nation asked me some questions, I answered here with an awesome prediction.  I sent him some questions and this is what I got back.  It's as simple as that.  But to answer with such enthusiasm and detail, I comment you Vandal brother for not taking the easy, one-sentence route.  OK I admit a couple of these questions actually had more than one part, my bad!

Red and Black Attack: What is the status of the Idaho program as a whole right now?  Does Akey seem like the man long term for you guys?  And could you please give us some detail on the recent additions to the Kibbie Dome?

Vandal Nation: The Idaho program has more confidence and positive energy now than at any time since Dennis Erickson bailed out. There's a feeling of actual hope that progress is being made. Nobody expected an instant turnaround, but after going 1-11 and then 2-10 in consecutive seasons, the pressure was on Robb Akey to produce some real progress. Now that we've equaled last season's win total in the first three games (both of them against FBS opponents), the fanbase is rallying behind him and his team — or "Akey's Army," as the marketing campaign has dubbed it.

Now, this is tempered with the realization that we are far from a "great" football team. There are a lot of issues to be dealt with on both sides of the ball. But right now, again, people are inclined to give Akey the benefit of the doubt. We wanted progress, he's delivering now — the only question left this season is, how much progress?

The Kibbie Dome is a real enigma for the program. On the one hand, it's a great and unique college venue that can provide some amazing home-field advantage...  the place gets real loud real fast! On the other, it's woefully inadequate for a competitive FBS football team — heck, it wouldn't even be a decent-sized FCS stadium these days. At 16,000 seats, 17,000 with overflow, it's far and away the smallest stadium in FBS football. If the Vandals start getting good, there aren't that many more seats to sell, so revenue has a very low ceiling.

The fanbase is split about 10 different ways on what to do. There's a faction that says renovate the Dome and add seating, but there's really not many ways to add more than about 5,000 seats. There's another faction that says take the roof off and expand the grandstands, but the Dome is such a valuable multipurpose indoor facility (track & field, tennis, football practice, commencement, conventions, etc.), that's simply never going to happen. There's yet another faction that says leave the Dome as-is and build a new ~30,000-seat outdoor stadium... which is all fine and good, but where's the money going to come from?

The recent renovations didn't add any seats, but certainly added to the atmosphere — the west upper wall of the Dome was removed and replaced with translucent plastic paneling, which allows natural lighting into the Dome for the first time. It seems like a minor thing, but the difference inside is quite amazing.  The east wall is set to be replaced next summer. Technically, the projects were funded as safety improvements — the entire structure is wood, and the worry was that if a fire started on the dome floor, it could spread straight up the plywood end walls into the roof. The solution was to make the walls fireproof. 

I know this was long, but you asked about three questions there :)

RABA: Vandals QB Nathan Enderle has improved a lot since the first time we faced him in 2007.  How has he improved and what kind of strengths and weaknesses does he have?  Is he strictly a pocket passer and does he still have nightmares about Larry English sacking him?
VN: Nate has definitely improved (though some fans still grumble about him, and want to bring in Brian Reader, his backup) — particularly in the choices he makes on when to throw. With three of 12 games in the books, he's only thrown two picks — in his first three FBS games last season, he threw five. It kind of goes without saying, but when you throw the ball away that much you're doomed.

One huge change this season has been the offensive line. The O-line has been giving much better protection. Again, at this point last year Nate had been sacked 9 times — this year, that number is just 5. Great? Hardly. But much-improved? Definitely.

The fact that Enderle has some decent pass protection has given him a chance to show that he's a better quarterback than he was last year. He is not ever going to be a run-and-gun, dual-threat quarterback, but against SDSU he showed a lot of poise in the pocket, some nifty rollouts and even made a couple nice scrambles.

Nate is most comfortable with the midrange pass — he tore apart the Aztecs' defense with little 10- and 15-yard slants all day long. He's not a great deep-threat QB — he seems to have a tendency to overthrow the long passes.

RABA: It seems as though you have a trio of running backs that are all capable of making plays.  What are some of the attributes for each of these players?  Are you a run-first or pass-first offense?
VN: In a nutshell, Princeton McCarty is the explosive speedster, Deonte Jackson has some big short-yard bulldog power and DeMaundray Woolridge is a stud who can bowling-ball through D-lines and still outrun the secondary.

Last week vs. San Diego State, DeMaundray didn't even play until the second half. The game plan seemed to be, get the defense used to facing off with McCarty and Jackson, then all of a sudden put a totally different playmaker on the field and watch the chaos. In just 11 carries, he gained 93 yards and scored 2 touchdowns, including a 53-yarder where he smashed through a hole in the D-line and outraced the whole Aztec defense to the house. He's scored four touchdowns in the last two games. Expect to see a lot more of him tomorrow. He's made a case to be #1 RB.

By yardage, we're definitely a pass-first team — racking up 760 yards in the air to 381 on the ground. But that's less lopsided than last year, and our average yards-per-rush and yards-per-pass are both improved. I would expect to see us go more on the ground as our offensive coordinator becomes more confident in our running game.

RABA: How good is Shiloh Keo and what other playmakers should we watch out for on the defensive side of the ball?
VN: Shiloh Keo is a quality playmaker but there's questions about how well he really covers. Some watchers have suggested that in his efforts to get the big picks or the pass breakups, he neglects to get his route and lock down his man, giving up some easy catches. We saw it happen a couple times against SDSU where he just flat got burned out of his shoes.

Our linebacking corps of JoJo Dickson, Paul Senescall and Robert Siavii has been pretty solid - Senescall and Dickson have 18 tackles apiece, Siavi 14. Dickson was WAC Defensive Player of the Week last week, after he opened scoring vs. SDSU with a 74-yard pick-six and racked up six tackles besides.

Up front, Jonah Sataraka is the leader - he's a 6-2, 280 nose tackle with 9 tackles (2 for loss) and a sack. 

The knock on our guys is that we don't do a good job getting pressure on the quarterback. We've got pretty decent cover guys, but we've had a hard time breaking through D-lines. There were a couple plays by the Aztecs where I was sitting in the press box thinking, "their quarterback could be making coffee and having a danish right now." Improving on that will be key, and the Vandals were working hard on it in practice this week.
RABA: On special teams, both your Kicker and your Punter have been impressing early.  Tell us a little bit more about these guys and the special teams unit as a whole.
VN: The kicker and punter are definitely impressive. Trey Farquhar, our kicker, is a greyshirt freshman and Bobby Cowan, our punter, is a redshirt freshman. Trey had been basically perfect right up until the second half vs. SDSU, when he shanked two easily-makeable field goal tries. Not sure whether it was jitters or he just had some issues or he just flat screwed up those two kicks, but it was a bit disconcerting. Hopefully he bounces back quickly. Cowan has been superb on the punts — not necessarily length, but positioning. He's done a good job preventing runbacks and pinning teams inside the 5 or 10-yard line.

The rest of our special-teams units... meh, I haven't been impressed. We haven't had any big runbacks and we seem to be vulnerable to some pretty good kickoff returns. Not "run to the house" returns, but SDSU was consistently able to get the ball out to the 30 or 35-yard line.

RABA: What are people overlooking about this Vandal team?  How do you see them performing on Saturday after their big win against the Aztecs?
VN: I think people are judging us entirely on our last two seasons. This is not, by any means, a great team — but by the same token, it is not a 1-11 or 2-10 team, either. The simple fact that we have one more FBS win this year already as we've had in the last two years combined says that. No, we didn't beat great teams — but SDSU crushed us last year and a lot of SDSU fans were going into this year's game calling us a cupcake, predicting a huge win for the Aztecs. They look pretty stupid now.

Remember also that against Washington (now a nationally-ranked team), we hung tough. The Huskies did not blow us off the field and Idaho was able to move the ball quite well — we put up more total yards than they did! It was a matter of trading field goals for touchdowns in the first half that killed us.

The biggest change, by far, is a mental one, I think.

Last year, the Vandals opened the season with a 70-0 obliteration by Arizona. It wasn't even ugly. It was slaughter. That game, right there, destroyed the Vandals, as a team. Mentally, they were crushed and the team's spirit was gone.

This year, we opened the season with a road game against a winnable FBS opponent, NMSU, and we went out and dominated them. Shut them out in the first half and gave up only a touchdown in the second. It told this team "Yes, you can win." Playing against Washington the next week, even losing, told them "Yes, you can compete, but you still need to get better."

The Vandals have two non-con games left, and realistically a 1-1 split would be a real achievement coming against two quality programs. Going into the rest of the conference season with a 3-2 record would be a shot in the arm.

But you guys have big Mo coming off Purdue and the home-field advantage. The way you're playing right now will be tough to beat, and I think our defense will start to give in the second half. In a hard-fought tussle, the Huskies come out on top by a touchdown, 34-27.

Thanks again and good luck this Saturday Vandal Nation!!!