Penn State’s Prey 2019: Idaho Vandals
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The Penn State Nittany Lions will kickoff the 2019 football season on August 31st, at 3:30 PM in Beaver Stadium. They will host the Idaho Vandals (4-7, 3-5 in the Big Sky Conference). The Vandals, who were placed on the schedule when they were still a part of the FBS division and the Sun Belt conference, recently moved to the FCS division and the Big Sky conference. Some picked the Vandals to compete well in the 2018 campaign, so their 4-7 season was quite disappointing and surprising to many.
Head coach Paul Petrino has been at the helm for six seasons and has amassed a dismal 23-48 record. However, there is some optimism that the Vandals can turn things around this season with a more favorable schedule–Penn State will be their toughest opponent.
It won’t be easy for the Vandals to storm into Happy Valley and secure a win, but if they want to, they will have to find a way to play better defense.
Defense (37.5 PPG, Returning Starters: Unknown)
Idaho’s defense was physically beaten time and time again against a variety of Big Sky offenses in addition to and understandably Fresno St and Florida. The 35.7 ppg is slightly high due to the annihilations of Fresno St and Florida, but don’t that doesn’t excuse the Vandals effort on defense.
Matters get worse for the Vandals as two returning senior starters, linebacker Ty Graham and safety Denzal Brantley, left the program for family needs. To add insult to injury, Idaho’s leading returning tackler, and linebacker, Christian Ellis (81 tackles) and tight end, Dalton Cash were arrested on theft charges and will miss the season opener against Penn State. Idaho will also miss Kaden Ellis, the linebacker was drafted 244th to the New Orleans Saints in the NFL Draft and is the brother of Christian.
Reinforcements have arrived this offseason though, with 10 defensive players transferring into the program. Three of these transfers come from the FBS level (2 from Boise State and 1 from Western Michigan). Additionally, Idaho does bring back Jalen Hoover (54 tackles and 2 blocked punts) and Lloyd Hightower (28 tackles, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble) in the defensive backfield.
With the suspension to Christian Ellis and the departure of Kaden Ellis, Idaho will be defenseless to the stable of running backs in Penn State’s backfield and will lack their leaders–this is not a winning recipe against Penn State.
Offense (24.91 PPG, Returning Starters: 8)
The good news: the Vandals bring back four offensive linemen from a year ago. The bad news, Idaho lost both their No.1 and No.2 rushers and the No.3 returning rusher is Mason Petrino, the senior quarterback. If Idaho plans to have success on offense, they will need to find a running game that was missing in 2018. Luckily they have a comittee of running backs that may be the solution: Junior running back, Dylan Thigpen missed last year with a leg injury and will be back this year, the occasional running back and also linebacker, Jack Bamis may see a more extended role in the backfield, big-frame back, Roshaun Johnson provides physicality, and Idaho welcomes freshmen Nick Romano and Khalil Forehand.
As mentioned, Petrino (245 yards and 3 TDs) adds a running element to the offensive attack. This may be imperative because Petrino is coming off of a unimpressive 59.8% completion rate with 1,933 yards, 15 TDs and 9 interceptions season. With a more productive running attack, Petrino may be able to have more success throwing the football, something he may struggle to do with Penn State’s pass rush and experienced secondary. Don’t be surprised if the Nittany Lions pick off the Vandals quarterback a couple times.
Idaho will also have to replace their leading receiver from a year ago, however, this seems more than capable with Cutrell Haywood (51 catches, 489 yards, and 6 TDs) and Jeff Cotton (49 catches, 656 yards, and 7 TDs) returning.
Idaho struggled in their first year in the Big Sky conference and they shouldn’t expect anything different when they face-off with a Big Ten heavyweight. The good news for the Vandals is they catch Penn State in the first game of the season–where the Nittany Lions will still be looking to find their stride. Last year, the Nittany Lions almost let App. State steal one in State College, partly because Penn State hadn’t found an identity yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vandals keep it close til halftime, but the lack of depth, running game, and the suspension of Christian Ellis will prove to be too much for Idaho. Thankfully for the Vandals, Idaho’s schedule eases up the rest of the way, with only one other FBS opponent, Wyoming, on the schedule. Reaching the FCS playoffs is still a realistic possibility, regardless of the outcome on August 31st.
Too Early Prediction
Idaho Vandals: 10
Penn State Nittany Lions: 45