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Idaho Vandals will test Portland State’s flex defense

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 11, 2019

Idaho linebacker Christian Elliss (1) celebrates with teammate Tre Walker against Weber State on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Moscow, Idaho. (Idaho Athletics / Courtesy)
Idaho linebacker Christian Elliss (1) celebrates with teammate Tre Walker against Weber State on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Moscow, Idaho. (Idaho Athletics / Courtesy)

MOSCOW, Idaho – If Idaho’s offense has difficulty getting untracked Saturday against Portland State, it will be because the Vandals’ past has come back to haunt them.

The Vikings employ a flex defense, built on the talents of speedy linebackers and safeties. The principles of the flex were worked out in the Canadian Football League by Don Matthews, a former Idaho linebacker who went on to coach five Grey Cup champions, and the scheme was further developed by Rich Ellerson when he coached the Desert Swarm defense at Arizona in the 1990s. Ellerson had a brief coaching tenure in Moscow with Jerry Davitch’s Idaho staff in the late 1970s.

The flex is designed to give quick defenders pass rushing opportunities and unobstructed pursuit angles against opponents’ ground games.

“They try to take away the run,” Vandals head coach Paul Petrino said of the Vikings.

This season, PSU (3-3, 1-1 Big Sky) seems similar to the team Idaho outlasted in the Kibbie Dome 20-7 last year. The Vikings rebounded from that defeat to reel off three straight wins on the way to a 4-7 season, 3-5 in conference.

Their most recent outing was a 52-31 victory over Southern Utah.

Like the Vandals (2-4, 0-2), PSU can bring a great effort any given week. The Vikings may not be Big Sky elites, but they are not to be taken lightly. Junior quarterback Davis Alexander has thrown for 12 touchdowns against three interceptions and has completed 102 of 166 passing attempts for 1,402 yards.

“He runs and makes plays,” Petrino said.

A favorite target is senior tight end Charlie Taumopeau, who has 18 receptions on the season for 222 yards and a touchdown.

Injuries have thinned the Vandals’ ranks. Most notably, leading receiver Jeff Cotton (49 catches for 556 yards with three touchdowns) is a day-to-day decision after leaving the Vandals’ close loss against Weber State last week with a leg injury.

Running back Aundre Carter (378 yards on 73 attempts with five touchdowns) is also questionable to play against Portland State after leaving the Weber State game with an injury.

Vandals quarterback Mason Petrino, the victim of a targeting call against the Wildcats, was shaken up but finished the game. On the season, he has completed 114 of 179 passes for 1,163 yards, with eight touchdowns and five interceptions. He has also rushed for 153 yards with two scores.

The Vandals senior has taken big hits several times already but has always been able to shake them off. If he has to come out of a game, according to Paul Petrino, redshirt freshman Nikhil Nayar will replace him for a few plays if it looks like Mason Petrino can return. Junior Colton Richardson will take over if it appears Mason Petrino would be out longer.

Against PSU, the Vandals are still trying to pick up their first road win since their final game as a member of the Sun Belt Conference in 2017, when Richardson led them to a 24-10 win at Georgia State. This year Idaho is playing without a net in its efforts to win a conference championship and qualify for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. It can hardly afford another loss.

But the Vandals are close to turning the corner and becoming a good team, according to Paul Petrino.

“We’ve just got to play four or five plays better and we will come away with a win,” he said.

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