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John Blanchette: UI defense must step up

BOISE – Five pass receptions in today’s Humanitarian Bowl and Bowling Green’s Freddie Barnes owns the NCAA single season record. This is a bigger lock than a senator from the Mormon Belt holding hearings about the BCS to score points with his electorate.

And Idaho coach Robb Akey is OK with that. To a point.

“I’d love to see it happen,” he said, “with five hitches for 5 total yards. That would make me very happy.”

The twinkle was prominent in Akey’s eye when he said it and his line got the appropriate laugh from his audience. But the essential truth behind the joke attaches a definition to the Vandals’ HumBowl rendezvous with Barnes and the Falcons much more basic than the big-picture issues swirling about this week and whether this bowl breakthrough can be a catalyst for Idaho’s improved athletic health and aspirations.

First things first: There’s a game to play.

Can the Vandals get a stop?

The gentle irony in this charming – and charmed – Idaho season is that while the Vandals sought, once and for all, to establish their worthiness at the FBS level, they did it by engaging in wild affairs that put some of the old Big Sky shootouts to shame. Entertainment was never lacking and the Vandals’ resiliency was remarkable, but it didn’t always feel like big-boy football, either.

This was particularly true over the last five games, when Idaho surrendered 2,400 yards and 250 points. We’ll risk a “duh” by pointing out that the Vandals lost four of those.

Now come the Falcons, winners of their last four, and the guy who catches everything but the H1N1. On the record, Akey puts no stock in the momentum factor – a month has passed since either team played – but his urgency takes a different tone behind the scenes.

“We have something to prove,” agreed nose tackle Jonah Sataraka. “Our head coach even came into our meeting room and barked at us. Being that he’s a defensive coach, he let us know that we have to be prideful of what we do.”

And mindful of Freddie Barnes.

A Biletnikoff Award finalist, Barnes is already a record-setter – for most passes caught by a former quarterback-against-his-will. He was recruited to Bowling Green to throw it, not catch it. In fact, he was ahead of current Falcons quarterback Tyler Sheehan in the depth as a freshman, and only an injury to his throwing arm in a game against Wisconsin rescued him.


“Growing up I always wanted to play receiver,” he said, “but at each level – Pop Warner, high school – they’d switch my position. I’d be in the receiving line at the beginning of the year and then they’d see me throw the ball back and they’d put me at quarterback. It was frustrating, but I got used to it.”

His 138 catches this year were not the residue of design. Three top Falcons receivers were lost for the season with injuries, and Ray Hutson missed half the year after knee surgery. Since they couldn’t give Barnes multiple jerseys, the BG staff gave him multiple identities.

“He’ll line up as a single receiver backside and single receiver frontside,” said BG coach Dave Clawson. “He’ll be in the slot, he’ll play the No. 3 position, he’s the quarterback in our Wildcat. As those guys got hurt, we made a decision that the offense was going to run through Freddie.”

No kidding. Against Kent State, Barnes not only caught 22 passes, he threw one, rushed three times and returned a punt. In six other games, he had 10 or more catches.

“Everybody they’ve played knows Barnes is going to get that football,” said Akey, “and they still get it to him.”

This is bound to be a little daunting to the Vandals, who’ve fared fitfully against the go-to guys on their schedule.

Boise State’s Austin Pettis and Titus Young arguably had their best games against UI; in the case of Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick, there was no argument. His 230 yards rushing and six touchdowns running and passing in a 70-45 Nevada romp marked the point when horror chapters began showing up in Idaho’s fairy-tale season, and frankly the defense has never recovered. No other bowl team allowed as many points this fall as the Vandals.

“It did sting us,” admitted Sataraka. “Just seeing the number 70 up on the scoreboard was heartbreaking.”

So it remains to be seen whether that noted therapist, Dr. Akey, has been able to repair the defensive psyche.

“Look, Barnes is going to make some plays and that’s it,” Akey said. “We need to make some more.”

Gentlemen, start your scoreboards.

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