Idaho football begins a new era as it enters the Sun Belt Conference this upcoming season. Below are parts two and three of the early look series from thevandalnation.com, where we preview each team on the 2014 Vandal football schedule.
When the sun starts to set on the late summer evening of Aug. 30 in Gainesville, Fla., the Vandal football team, in its first game of 2014, will enter the toughest environment it will see all season. It will be hot and humid, the crowd of 88,000-plus will be deafening and the opponent, University of Florida, will be motivated.
The Vandals are clearly underdogs, but don’t think Idaho coach Paul Petrino is using that mentality to motivate his team.
“You can only say the underdog stuff so much,” Petrino said. “The most important thing for us is to get better every single day. All through fall camp, all summer and go in there and compete our tails off. We need to be tough, hit hard and let the cards fall where they may.”
Florida will look to bounce back this season after it finished 2013 with the disappointing record of 4-8.
Entering his fourth season, Florida coach Will Muschamp has a record of 22-16. In the past, that has been below the standard for the athletic department, who fired Ron Zook back in 2004, after he went 23-14 in three seasons.
With a defense that only surrendered an average of 21.1 points per game last season, which ranked 15th in the nation, the problem for Florida has been on the other side of the ball.
The offense was anemic last season and even finished with numbers worse than the Vandals. The Gators ranked near the bottom of most offensive categories, notably 110th in passing yards, 89th in rushing yards and 114th in points.
Along with quarterback Jeff Driskel returning from a broken leg, which sidelined him nine games last season, Muschamp hired new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper during the offseason.
Roper, formally offensive coordinator at Duke, brings his unique up-tempo, spread attack to Florida. The new scheme will be a change of pace from the pro-style, ground and pound offense Muschamp tried to implement in his first three years.
“They’re very talented,” Petrino said. “I mean anytime you go play in the swamp, you’re going to play a bunch of four and five star players. So we just got to have a great fall camp, improve everyday and go in there and just expect to play our very best.”
The Vandals list seven players on its roster who hail from Florida. You can bet they return home with a chip on their shoulders.
Week two preview of Louisiana-Monroe
It’s a cliché used by every coach — “We’re going to take the season one game at a time.”
But for Idaho head coach Paul Petrino, the temptation to look past a tough first game against Florida and focus on the second opponent Louisiana-Monroe, will be hard to resist.
At a glance, UF might seem like the more exciting game, but on Saturday, Sept. 6, a new era of Vandal football begins.
“It’s our first conference game,” Petrino said. “It’s a team we have worked hard on as a staff all winter and summer.”
After spending last season as an Independent, Idaho now enters the Sun Belt Conference as football only members. ULM is the first conference opponent of 2014. Last season the Warhawks finished 6-6.
Hired in 2010, ULM head coach Todd Berry has compiled a 23-26 record. In 2008, he led them to the Independence Bowl, which is still the only bowl game appearance in school history — ULM lost to Ohio University, 45-14.
“They’re a good team and always have been,” Petrino said. “They do a good job, but they did lose their quarterback, and I think that will help us.”
Berry will need to replace 2012 Sun Belt Offensive Player of the year, Kolton Browning. The four-year starter passed for 10,263 yards and 81 touchdowns during his collegiate career.
Senior quarterback Pete Thomas, who recently transferred from North Carolina State, is the front-runner to take over. Coming out of high school, the former four-star recruit originally committed to play for Colorado State, but after two years, Thomas transferred to NCSU. In 30-career games the 6-foot-6 quarterback, passed for 5,936 yards, 22 touchdowns and 30 interceptions.
With a new quarterback, five starters returning on offense — four of which reside on the offensive line — and a dynamic one-two punch in the backfield with Tyler Cain and Centarius Donald, the run game will be the main weapon in early season.
The Warhawks defense returns nine starters and five of them play up front in the unique 3-3-5 defensive scheme. While the front six looks to be the strength, ULM’s secondary isn’t far behind with four returning starters.
“This is definitely a game we need to go play well in and try to win our first conference game in the Sun Belt,” Petrino said.
Week three preview of Western Michigan
The Kibbie Dome was once a place where students were deafening and the stadium was filled to capacity. But during the past few seasons, the dome has become quiet.
Idaho coach Paul Petrino knows the importance of having a good home field advantage, and on Sept. 13, he hopes a victory in the home opener versus Western Michigan can fuel fans for the rest of the season.
“Anywhere you start a good program, you need to have a home game winning streak,” Petrino said. “To be able to turn a program around, you need to win all your home games.”
The Kibbie Dome has its fair share of unique quirks. It’s the largest dome in the country that is made predominately of wood, goal posts aren’t dug into the ground but instead attached to the end zone walls and well, it’s a dome.
Even with unique quirks, when it’s filled to capacity, the Kibbie Dome becomes one of the better home field advantages in college football.
“You have got to make it tough for people to come play there,” Petrino said. “That’s a game you have to be able to win.”
Like Idaho, WMU is rebuilding and the two programs almost mirror each other with similarities. Both head coaches will enter their second year, both have a strong incoming recruiting class and both went 1-11 last season.
“It will be two evenly matched teams,” Petrino said. “They have their leading receiver back and have some good skill on defense. It’s another big game and another one we’ve worked really hard on.”
Another similarity with Idaho is WMU doesn’t know who will start at quarterback.
The favorite is sophomore Zach Terrell. He started six games last season and passed for 1,602 yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. But he isn’t the leader by much. Incoming freshman, Chance Stewart, has already been deemed the quarterback of the future.
Stewart was highly recruited, rated four-stars and the 19th best quarterback in the nation coming out of high school according to ESPN.com. He chose WMU over high-profile schools Wisconsin and Illinois — both offered scholarships.
Head coach P.J. Fleck has been praised for his first recruiting class, which ranked 40th according to rivals.com.
“They had a really good recruiting class,” Petrino said. “They’re kind of like us, their coach was in his first year. I’m sure they will show great improvement everywhere.”
Korbin McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org