If one considers a football campaign happening in three phases — nonconference, conference and postseason — Weber State football enters the next phase Saturday by opening Big Sky play in a new location.
The No. 4 Wildcats (2-2) travel to Moscow to face Idaho (2-3, 0-1 Big Sky), a one-time original member of the Big Sky and 2018 addition to the conference.
There’s some juxtaposition there: WSU is 14-2 in conference games over the last two seasons, and 20-4 over the last three, while Idaho is a surprising 0-1 this season after last year’s 3-5 record.
It’s a surprising start to the Vandals’ return to FCS football after spending 1996-2017 in the upper FBS portion of Division I, especially considering last week’s result. Idaho led Northern Colorado 24-10 with 10:32 left in the third quarter after a four-play, 75-yard touchdown drive ended with Mason Petrino hitting Cutrell Haywood for a 19-yard touchdown pass.
The Bears scored a TD two minutes later, then added 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. Northern Colorado grabbed its first win of the season, 27-24.
It’s the latest turn in a confusing start to Idaho’s season. The Vandals lost 21-16 at FBS Wyoming in a game it trailed 14-13 in the fourth quarter. They also rolled up a 28-0 lead in a 35-27 win over Eastern Washington.
But Idaho also struggled against Division II opponent Central Washington — it was 24-24 in the third quarter and 34-31 with 7:13 left — before winning 41-31, then dropped its conference opener to Northern Colorado, a team Jeff Sagarin rates 199 out of 256 Division I teams, which is worst in the Big Sky.
It’s odd but, for Weber State, there’s nothing to do but prepare for the best version of an opponent.
“They’re a good team. They were right there with Wyoming, right to the bitter end. They had a 28-point lead on Eastern and pulled off a huge upset,” WSU head coach Jay Hill said. “This is a team that definitely has our full focus and attention, we know their talent level and how good they are.”
It starts with Petrino, the senior quarterback and son of head coach Paul Petrino. After splitting time as starter through his career, Petrino is the No. 1 guy and is completing 62.5% of his passes this season at 190 yards per game, with seven touchdowns and five interceptions.
Aundre Carter, Roshaun Johnson and Nick Romano have each rushed for more than 200 yards. The freshman Romano has surged as of late. His 201 yards are on only 25 carries, an average of 8 yards per rush. He ran for 132 yards against Northern Colorado.
“They’ve got good backs. I like their running backs, the offensive line is solid, for sure,” Hill said. “I really like the way their tight ends block. The quarterback does a good job with the RPOs, which opens up the run game because he’s making you respect the throw off of the runs. The offense is hard to stop, they do a lot of good things running and throwing, which makes you have to defend it all, and making their run game more effective.”
Idaho’s defense is capable, starting with its defensive line. Their 3-4 look puts Rahsaan Crawford (331 pounds) and Jonah Kim (353 pounds) at nose tackle to clog run lanes.
The Vandals also have the familiar name Elliss at two spots; they are the sons of former University of Utah All-American and first-round NFL draft pick Luther Elliss, who coaches Idaho’s defensive line.
Junior Christian Elliss starts at a linebacker spot and sophomore Noah Elliss (6-foot-4, 347 pounds) sees time on the defensive line. Kaden Elliss starred at linebacker last year and made the New Orleans Saints roster after graduating.
Regardless of opponent, Hill expects his offense to find ways to be productive. Doing so for one half against Northern Iowa was a good sign.
“What we need to do offensively is play like we did in the first half of the last game — 42 plays, 284 yards against Northern Iowa, which is an elite defense. We were efficient in the throw game, efficient in the run game. We scored points — I think we went touchdown, field goal, touchdown, field goal, touchdown in the first half,” Hill said.
“Good offenses take what they’re given. I thought we did a great job of that in the first half, and in the second half we weren’t taking advantage of what they were giving us and, as a consequence, we were kind of banging our head against the wall a little bit.”
The game kicks off at 3 p.m. MDT. A live stream will be carried on the Pluto TV app channel 542 and on WatchBigSky.com, with a radio broadcast on 1430 AM KLO.
WSU and Idaho, both flagship members of the Big Sky, play for the first time since 1995, a game WSU won 25-19 in Ogden. Weber State’s last trip to the Kibbie Dome, the site of this weekend’s game, was the year prior, which Idaho won 79-30.
ODDS & PREDICTIONS
Sportsbook 5dimes shows Weber State as a 7-point favorite in the contest. Combined with the over-under of 47, the odds expect a WSU win of 27-20.
Jeff Sagarin’s famed rating and prediction model ranks all of Division I, both FBS and FCS. Weber State is ranked 107th and Idaho is 153rd. His model favors Weber State by 7.9 points.