The Battle of the Palouse brings challenges to both Washington State and Idaho. Let’s talk some realistic expectations for both.
We’ll start with Idaho. Being the former Vandal that I am from back in 2006 and 2007, I certainly understand the importance of the game to both the team and students (non-student/athletes) alike. Those two years were of course the final two years that this rivalry enjoyed, but make no mistake, the kids from Idaho are taking the “rivalry” aspect very seriously regardless of what the coaches and team will tell you. It’s a huge deal to the University and Moscow community and there will be more Idaho fans than you expect at the football game. And just so it’s clear, no I won’t be one of them (and I wasn’t an Idaho fan during Washington State week then either, I have always bled crimson and gray baby!)
All that hype aside, Idaho has been downright terrible to start the season and it’s going to be very difficult to overcome at Martin Stadium on Saturday. They were lit up in both North Texas and Wyoming to the tune of 82-16 before coming home and showing a semblance of fight against a really good Northern Illinois team. People here in Moscow are saying that the Vandals really could’ve and should’ve won the game. Of course the idea is that WSU is no NIU and therefore the Vandals have a realistic shot of knocking off the Cougs for their first win of the season.
Last year, that might have been the case, but this season I don’t see it happening. Idaho freshman quarterback Chad Chalich finally had a decent day passing at 240 yards and 2 touchdowns, but he’s about to be facing the #1 pass defense in the nation to this point. The Cougs allow less than a bill per game at 99.7 yards. The Cougs are also among the nation’s best in points allowed (16 pts for 23rd nationally).
All that means the Vandals would have to play their most efficient game of the year offensively (at least to this point) if they hope to keep up. Even if they didn’t score 35 points like they did against NIU, U of I will need to be good at things like 3rd down conversions (28%), Turnovers (10 fumbles, 8 lost) and rushing (3.26 yards per carry).
A big special teams play would also be big for Idaho somewhere along the way. In upset attempts it usually comes down to if the underdog can make a play or two on special teams to flip momentum. Also remember the Vandals are only 1-4 in field goal attempts this season.
I think overall a realistic expectation for Idaho is to stick around in the game somehow. Even Vandals’ fans don’t seriously think they have a shot in this game, but plenty of them have upgraded the game to the “we could” category after their game against the Huskies. They’ll come in force to the game and be excited early by anything that happens in favor of the Vandals, even if it’s a 4 yard gain. The team in black and gold could feed on that and of course we all know that the longer an underdog sticks around with something to play for, the more dangerous they become. Basically a win here would make Idaho’s season and ruin it for the Cougs.
Washington State Cougars
The Cougars are coming off of a blowout of FCS opponent S. Utah in their home opener and are chalk full of confidence. It’s less about the rivalry in Pullman and more about the task at hand in winning the next game, but it still could become a trap game for them if they aren’t careful to take care of their assignments and match the intensity that the Vandals will bring early in the game. If they do that early they could put Idaho away by the half.
The offense needs to be as efficient as they were last week, when Halliday threw five touchdowns and the team garnered 464 total yards. Eliminating the turnover would be a step they should take too, but of course we know that in 60 minutes of football, turning the football over is almost a given. Last week it was a blown assignment that cost the Cougs an interception. They also narrowly avoided a lost fumble from Kristoff Williams when he stepped out of bounds before losing the ball.
The defense, well, they need to just be themselves. So far the defense has led the way in all three games. Even though Auburn scored 31 points, 14 could be directly contributed to a turnover by the offense that put the Tigers at the WSU 8 and the kickoff return touchdown. If the “D” can be what they are and continue to lead the nation in pass defense the Cougs win this game handily. There’s no way Idaho can run against the front 7 of WSU enough to keep up with “Coug-Air”.
We always forget about special teams, but the Cougs need to be solid here. They don’t need to make anything special happen, but avoid the big fumble, the blocked kick against and/or any big returns that flip the momentum. We already know we have one of the best field goal kickers in the nation, so taking the points to add when we get in 4th and medium in scoring range should probably happen.
I can tell you right now the Cougar faithful expect a full on blowout in this game. Personally I’m not sure how fair that is, given that the Cougs are still in the early stages of learning success on a weekly basis. But at the same time if the Cougs want to be what they want to be it does seem plausible that this game needs to be a lopsided victory in their favor, both for confidence sake and to pull what they need out of the game.
What is that need? To believe they are truly one of the conferences best teams heading into Stanford week. The Cardinal have an elite ranking and the Cougs need to really believe that they deserve to win that game, as opposed to thinking they have a really good chance against them. Confidence is what they have, belief is what they need. Sending some Vandal fans home by sometime in the 3rd quarter because they can’t watch the massacre any more would accomplish that goal.
Covering the Spread
Right now WSU is a 31 point favorite in this game with a 57 point over/under spread. Last week the Cougs covered 38 points in a game with 58 points overall against Southern Utah. If Vegas asked me to take the Cougs in a 41-16 victory this week? Yes please.