Idaho seeks to end negative trend this weekend

Sep. 8—The No. 7 Idaho football team continues its long road trip to open the season as it takes on Football Bowl Subdivision opponent Nevada at 4 p.m. (SWX) on Saturday at Mackay Stadium in Reno, Nevada.

The Vandals haven't won against an FBS opponent since Dec. 2, 2017, defeating Georgia State, when Idaho was still a member of the FBS in the Sun Belt Conference.

Idaho isn't the only Football Championship Subdivision team that has struggled against the FBS. The FCS finished 0-42 against its FBS counterparts last week.

Despite all of this, the Vandals showed some improvement against the upper echelon last year under coach Jason Eck.

The Vandals fell to the Pac-12's Washington State and the Big Ten's Indiana last season. But the results were a contrast to the shellacking Idaho had typically received from its FBS foes.

The Vandals' 24-17 loss to the Cougars came down to the final play, and that's been coach Eck's message — make it last all four quarters.

"Our hope is that this is going to be a four-quarter game," Eck said. "We have to battle until the very end of the game."

Here's what to know ahead of Saturday's contest:

Where the Pack's strength lies

It's hard to take much away from either Idaho or Nevada following their respective Week 1 results.

The Vandals trounced Lamar 42-17 and had over 400 yards of total offense, while the Pack fell 66-14 to USC and top NFL prospect Caleb Williams.

Even though Nevada got piled on by the Trojans, Eck was able to see some positives, namely the Pack's receiver room and senior Jamaal Bell.

Bell's most explosive play against USC was a 77-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter.

USC defensive back Anthony Beavers was in man coverage with the speedster, and Bell was able to get behind him with relative ease.

"They throw a lot of deep balls, and I'm a bit concerned about that," Eck said. "Both of their touchdowns were set up by long receptions."

A test for UI's secondary

The Wolfpack had a trio of wideouts log more than 50 yards receiving, and all three are upperclassmen. This will be a big test for the Vandals secondary, which is one of their most experienced defensive units.

Junior cornerback Marcus Harris logged the lone takeaway for Idaho in its win over Lamar and is a preseason All-Big Sky selection.

Junior safety Tommy McCormick will also be heavily relied on on the back end.

Saturday's game will serve as a bit of a homecoming for McCormick and his brother Sean, who is also on the team, as they grew up one hour away from Reno.

"I'm very excited," Tommy McCormick said. "I've been looking forward to this game for many years, ever since I've seen it on our schedule."

You can't beat yourself

Coach Eck has many mottos, but one that he says more than most is that the Vandals can't beat the Vandals.

Idaho committed three more penalties than the Cardinals in their season opener and were still able to sneak out a win. That's not going to happen against a team like Nevada

"We have to clean up the penalties," Eck said. "We had 11 drives on defense; on six of those drives, we didn't allow a penalty, and they didn't score. Three of the five drives that we did commit a penalty, they scored. ... That's a message going forward; we have to clean that up."

Finding areas of improvement

Idaho's offensive line did an OK job protecting sophomore quarterback Gevani McCoy, allowing one sack and one QB pressure.

Eck believes the pressure may have caused McCoy's lone interception in the third quarter. The group also struggled to give running back Anthony Woods much room to run throughout the game.

The sophomore had 13 carries for 138 yards and two scores, but 67% of his rushing yards came from a 93-yard run.

"I think we have to improve on our run blocking and be more efficient in our run game," Eck said. "Obviously, we got a lot of yards on one play, and we have to keep being consistent on getting five-yard chunks play in and play out."

Continuing to develop depth

Idaho wants to be able to rotate through its players, especially on defense.

The Vandals did a solid job of this in Week 1, as they played 63 of their 68 active players.

"To play 63 guys in a college football game is exciting," Eck said. "The NFL doesn't even dress 63 on game day, so to play 63 guys is tremendous, and there will be a lot of learning that we can take away and grow from."

The reps were valuable for the young players, but there's still some development to be done, according to Eck.

"We have to push hard to get better," Eck said. "They're not quite at the level they need to be but they can get there for us to compete for a conference championship. We have to keep developing those guys.

"A game rep is probably worth five or six practice reps. If you make mistakes in a game, it's a bigger deal, and everyone notices. There's a lot of learning in that situation, and some things sink in better when you make a mistake in the game instead of practice."

Pixley may be contacted at (208) 848-2290, or on Twitter @TreebTalks.