Photo courtesy of Idaho Athletics
By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: Just two years removed from an 8-5 season which included a win over Bowling Green in a thrilling Humanitarian Bowl, the Idaho Vandals struggled mightily to contend against the rest of the Western Athletic Conference in 2011.
Head coach Robb Akey has brought respect and confidence back to the Idaho program, although last season there was little he could do with the hand he was dealt. The team had huge issues on offense, ranking last in the conference and 111th in the nation in total yards per game (301.5), and was also eighth in the WAC and 107th nationally in scoring (20.3 ppg).
Forget about the fact that the Vandals put up 24 points against a weak New Mexico State team, slipped by San Jose State by three with a 32-point performance and nearly upended Utah State in double-overtime of a 49-42 affair, because those were all anomalies. Then again, the Vandals weren't nearly as bad as they appeared when they bowed to BYU (42-7) on the road the second week of November, or were throttled by Nevada (56-3) in the regular-season finale as the Wolf Pack tried to increase their national appeal.
Idaho closed out last season with three straight defeats and was just 2-10 overall, thanks in part to a 44-14 romp over North Dakota at home in the second game of the season. Not only was the offense bringing up the rear in the WAC, the defense was one of the weakest in the league and ranked 101st nationally with 436.8 ypg allowed. The pass defense was exposed time and time again as opponents averaged 278.3 ypg through the air, and while the effort against the run yielded just 158.6 ypg, that's only because the competition found an easier way to take down the Vandals.
OFFENSE: There are several questions that the offense must answer before the start of the season, the most important of those being who will be the starting quarterback. Brian Reader took the bulk of the snaps last season and ended up throwing more INTs (12) than TDs (10), so hopefully the options this season will pan out better.
As recently as the first week of August, the competition between Taylor Davis and Dominique Blackman for the starting spot continued to be a hot topic, but at the same time the team needed to nail down jobs along the offensive line as well. The team returns some level of experience at nearly every position on both sides of the ball, but that doesn't mean starting roles are already written in stone.
Senior Ryan Bass appeared in seven games at running back in 2011 and ranked third on the team with 175 yards, but by no means is he the automatic pick to fill the void left by Princeton McCarty and Kama Bailey who combined for 1,146 of the unit's 1,359 yards on the ground a season ago.
Recognized as one of the top offensive threats in the conference, wide receiver Justin Veltung is eager to get back to the playing field after his 2011 campaign was cut short due to injury. A candidate for the Paul Hornung Award, a nation honor which recognizes the most versatile athlete in college football, Veltung scored twice on just 11 punt returns a year ago and is also a threat to break a long run any time he gets his hands on a kickoff as well.
"I'm very happy and excited for Justin to be recognized in this fashion," said coach Akey of Veltung. "I think it says a lot for him and his abilities and for this team. I'm anxious for him to have a great senior season and I think if he does do the things he's capable of, he's a guy who could be a finalist for that award."
DEFENSE: The pass defense for the Vandals last season was rather disappointing and much of that had to do with the fact that the team was just sixth in the WAC and 94th nationally in terms of sacks with just 1.42 per outing. Without getting enough pressure on opponents in the backfield, Idaho gave quarterbacks far too much time and opportunity to seek out receivers.
Unfortunately, the defense is bringing back only four returning starters and only one of those appeared along the line in QuayShawne Buckley. Now a sophomore, Buckley had a decent season with 38 total tackles, making five behind the line of scrimmage, but he'll need much more help from fellow linemen this year if he plans on boosting his numbers.
Senior linebacker Conrad Scheidt finished third on the team a year ago with 93 tackles, placing second on the unit in both tackles for loss (8) and forced fumbles (3). Scheidt's primary job this year could be more about training his teammates in the middle and his eventual successor, more than about making plays himself.
Safety Gary Walker is the last line of defense for the Vandals and played like it in 2011 when he placed second on the team with 109 stops, with a team-high 67 solo takedowns. If Idaho is going to have any measure of success this season, many more tackles will have to be made by the players in front of Walker.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award in 2011, punter Bobby Cowan is someone that the coaching staff can rely on to get the job done. As a junior last season Cowan averaged a staggering 46.4 yards per kick, the second-highest average in school history. An All-WAC selection in each of the last two years, Cowan is Idaho's all-time leader in punt average (45.2 ypp). Obviously it is good to have a player like him in your corner, but surely coach Akey would rather have his offense sustain drives rather than turn them over to Cowan as a sign of defeat.
Senior Trey Farquhar returns as the primary kicker for the group, although hitting just 10-of-15 field goal attempts last year doesn't mean his job is safe.
OUTLOOK: "Our defense did some really good things over the course of spring ball," Akey asserted. "If we stay healthy, we have a chance to be pretty good there. Offensively, there are some pretty good weapons. We have the best punter and one of the best placekickers in the country."
What sounds like a lot of wishful thinking is perhaps just that. Except for meetings with Texas State and Texas-San Antonio, the two newest members of the fading conference, wins will be tough to find for the Vandals in 2012. Non- conference trips to LSU, North Carolina and BYU could be devastating encounters, although Akey will probably term them as valuable learning experiences.