With Weber State beginning its 2019 Big Sky schedule with a trip to Idaho on Saturday, I reached out to beat writer Colton Clark of the Lewiston Tribune to get his insight into the Vandals.
Here are five questions with Clark, who you can follow on Twitter @ClarkTrib.
1. This Idaho team played Wyoming tough and shot out of the gate to beat Eastern Washington, but struggled to put away a D-II team and lost to Northern Colorado, who, to be frank, is bad. What's the diagnosis there?
Clark: It's classic Idaho football — build some hope, then snuff it out posthaste. It's a little bit of everything, honestly. When the Vandals are in a groove from the start, and feel like the underdogs, or feel like the momentum's on their side, they play some smooth football. If things start to go a little haywire, you can tell that the team's beginning to deflate. Heads drop and — like Idaho's been for as long as I can remember — it's easy to tell that they won't build enough momentum to get back in. They scare themselves into submission.
That was the case against Central after consecutive turnovers and a wide-receiver-sweep TD pass. And that was the case against Northern Colorado when Mason Petrino started forcing things and got picked off three times. There's enough talent there to be competitive in this league, but there's a bane in what many around here call the "Vandal factor." Basically, it's nearly impossible to get a true read on them, because they look so different week in and week out.
2. When Idaho is looking good defensively, what and who is usually behind that?
Clark: Front seven, 100%. Christian Elliss is looking more and more like his brother, Kaden, every day. Sophomore mike backer Tre Walker is turning into a star — he leads the Big Sky in tackles — and buck backer Charles Akanno is in the backfield at least a couple of times per series. The defensive line's got two 350-pounders, both of whom will be healthy Saturday. They're more mobile then you'd think, just looking at them.
There's a nice little rotation of six interior guys for fresh legs, and four guys rotate on the edges, so UI does play faster than it did last year. The secondary is young and still a bit iffy, but its best pass defense is not having to defend at all — when the Vandals are on, their rushers are getting there in a jiff.
3. The QB situation has been somewhat unsettled recently but Mason Petrino looks to fully be the man this season. What makes him the top QB in the group and what does the offense do well with him at QB?
Clark: First of all, there hasn't been anyone to truly challenge him for the spot over the last two years. There's a 285-pound kid from Lewiston and a freshman, so obviously they go with the senior coach's son. He's OK, really hit and miss. Like the lot of the Vandals, though, he can't restore momentum when they need it. He can guide an offense and flow smoothly when things are going well — generally, in the first half — but he can't pick everyone up when the opponents swipe the lead late.
He's not deadly fast or anything, but he's mobile enough to pick up 50-or-so per game on the ground. It's less about athleticism, more about him understanding where gaps will open up. He's about 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, so naturally, his arm strength has been criticized above all else. It's gotten a bit better, but he's still limited to shallow and intermediate throws for the most part. In all, he can be fairly accurate, especially when he's in a quick rhythm with the offense. Lots of rollouts, lots of 10ish-yard completions on out routes or crossers.
4. The running back position looks balanced. Who are the key players there and what are their styles?
Clark: It's supposed to be a four-pronged machine back there. There's the 235-pound Aundre Carter and Roshaun Johnson — Johnson's doubtful for this game. And there's the two true frosh in speedier Nick Romano and Kiahn Martinez. Carter had probably seven or eight busted tackles against Eastern Washington, and Johnson's a taller complement to him. Both just drag guys.
Romano's more of a patient back who waits for a little seam. He just had a breakout game last week with 132 yards on 15 carries. His top facet is his acceleration. Martinez has been dealing with a tweaked ankle for a while, so we haven't really had a great read on him. But he looked like one of the quickest on the team during fall camp.
5. Let's get existential: Idaho is in Year 2 of its move to the Big Sky. It didn't sit well with many of the Vandal faithful at the time, but what is the overall vibe now that fans are several years removed from the decision?
Clark: Still bitter, because Idaho is still just as bad as it was in the FBS. You'd expect a team "dropping" to at least compete with the upper-middle class of the Big Sky, but all the Vandals did last year was get rocked by all their former rivals, and all they've done this year is garner some hope, then get rid of it right away with a loss to one of the worst in the FCS. If Idaho would've beaten Northern Colorado, I think some opinions would be beginning to shift, but any kind of consistent success is the antithesis of Vandal football.
I do believe that even the most ardent FBS supporters have come to their senses now, and realize that a move back up is not going to happen. In a nutshell, it's reluctant acceptance. The ire has shifted now to coach Paul Petrino. Many simply think he has not and will not ever adjust UI into a team that matches up well against Big Sky foes.