Colton Clark covers Idaho football as the beat writer for the Lewiston Tribune in Lewiston, Idaho. We caught up with him to talk about the Vandals ahead of Saturday’s game.
Davis Potter: What are Idaho coach Paul Petrino and his players saying about preparing for Wyoming this week?
Colton Clark: So far, they’ve been talking about the elevation. That’s been a thing, so they’re like, “We need to hydrate and rotate a lot of guys.” And what they’ve been trying to do in general this year is use their depth because they haven’t had depth like this in a while. On defense, you’ll see them play 20 guys or so or about 20 guys in one possession. I think you’ll see a lot of that at Wyoming. I don’t know much about Wyoming, but according to them, they say they’re one of those teams that just likes to line up with you and try to kind of run it down your throat, run it a lot and establish their offense through the run.
DP: What’s been the biggest impact on Idaho’s program since dropping from the Football Bowl Subdivision to the Football Championship Subdivision a season ago?
CC: I think the first thing was recruiting. You would think that with them going to the Big Sky, arguably the best FCS conference, they would be getting kind of those upper-tier, Big-Sky caliber players. But that wasn’t the case right when they got there because there was this transitional period between 2017-18 where everyone knew they were dropping down, so they would try to recruit people and the parents of the recruits would be like, “You guys obviously don’t care about football at all because you’re just dropping down for some reason.” They would look more at that than they would look at, “Well we’re dropping down to the best FCS conference.” So you could just tell there was between Idaho’s starters and backups just this giant disparity, and then they would be torn apart. Then also adjusting to the style of play in the Big Sky, too. I’m not saying all of the Big Sky is just explosive offenses, hurry up, score a lot of points. That’s how it mostly is. A few teams like Weber State just likes to play defense and no offense. Cal Poly likes to run it down your throat. But most of them like to hurry up and do a lot of RPO action it and throw it. … Then they get to the Big Sky, and even though they’re returning a lot of FBS talent, these guys aren’t used to these teams they haven’t played in 20-odd years. And then they get picked apart because they don’t know what to expect. They’re trying to play like a Sun Belt team not in the Sun Belt, and the Big Sky has exploited all of that. Looking at what’s happening around the league now, I still don’t know if I buy into that they have successfully adjusted yet. I don’t know if you’ve just got to give Petrino more time to do it or if they have to make some serious changes. Not in terms of head coaching. I’m not going to say that. But just schematically if you have to completely scrap everything and put in a whole new scheme. I’m not sure yet.
DP: Wyoming has one of the worst pass defenses in the FBS through two games. How might Idaho try to exploit that?
CC: (The intermediate passing game) might work a little bit in Idaho’s favor. I’m not saying they’re going to really take advantage of it just because there’s probably going to be a pretty wide talent gap. But Idaho does have a couple of fantastic receivers, Jeff Cotton and Curtell Haywood. At the end of the year, they might be the best receiving duo in the Big Sky conference. Jeff Cotton had 90 yards against Penn State. He had 16 catches for 150 yards last week, but that tells all. Sixteen catches for only 150 yards. Idaho doesn’t throw it deep almost ever. The only time they do is they’ll get into the red zone or like 30 yards to paydirt and then (quarterback) Mason (Petrino) and Jeff Cotton, Petrino loves to throw deep fades to Jeff Cotton. That’s about as deep as it’ll get. It is a lot of crossing routes, out routes, short hitches, stuff like that. If Wyoming struggles with that, maybe Idaho can put something together on offense.
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DP: What’s Idaho’s biggest strength?
CC: It’s kind of hard to tell right now. I would say the receiving corps. It’s just about getting it to them. I still think they might squander the receivers they have. They’ve got so much talent there, especially between those two guys in Cotton and Haywood. Those guys are great, but you don’t really have a true quarterback at all. They didn’t even try to go out their way to get one, even a (junior college) drop-down or anything. Other than that, everyone kind of thought it would be the front seven — the defensive line in particular just because it’s so deep. Luther Elliss, an NFL-All Pro and a former 10-year NFL player, he’s the d-line coach and his son, Noah, was a four-star, 350-pound d-tackle that signed with Mississippi State and then came here for eligibility stuff. That kid, he just looks completely different than anyone I’ve seen in the conference. You’d think he would dominate, but he hasn’t really. He’s shown a few flashes. Last week, the d-line was really disappointing.
DP: And their glaring weakness?
CC: People always talk about the quarterback position just because he’s the coach’s son and wasn’t recruited by anybody. He wasn’t really a good quarterback in high school. Was kind of an average quarterback in high school. Then he comes here as a wide receiver and then, well, look at that, he’s the quarterback now. People will say that, but I think Mason has gotten a little bit better. He really was like the only reason Idaho won last week, and it’s just because he understands how he’s limited. But after that, probably the secondary. The secondary just does not seem to have it together. I don’t know if it’s coaching, communication, not in the right spot or they keep getting beat. I think a lot of times, their eyes are in the backfield. ... Until I see them actually perform well against a team that can actually throw the ball, I’ll be skeptical.
DP: What are the expectations for Idaho in Petrino’s seventh year at the helm?
CC: We’ve talked to Petrino about it, and he said reaching the playoffs is his goal. With this kind of season, with how stacked the Big Sky is right now, they’d probably have to get eight wins to get there and I just don’t see it. ... I think he’s expecting they’re going to have 6-8 wins. I think that’s the expectation. The fans on the other hand, they went into the season and said at best 6-6 or 5-7. There were almost no expectations. People are still pretty bitter about the drop (to the FCS level). Some people have accepted it. Some people are a little hesitant to accept it, especially after last year. Then the first two weeks of this season have done nothing to help. After they barely beat Central Washington, a lot of people went from 5-6 wins to, “Oh my God, is this team even going to win one more game?” I don’t know, especially how after other Big Sky teams did. I’ve seen a lot of that. Now people are saying between 1-3 wins. I think the team still thinks they can get to .500 or a game or two above.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.