MOSCOW, Idaho – In the thin air of Laramie’s War Memorial Stadium, 7,215 feet above sea level, things can be seen clearly – including, perhaps, what kind of football team Idaho might be this year.
Bracketed by a 79-7 dismantling at the hands of nationally ranked Penn State and a 41-31 victory over stubborn Division II Central Washington University, the Vandals have seen the worst of times and, if not the best of times, at least better-than-average ones to open this season.
Against Wyoming, a team without Penn State’s defensive talent but nonetheless with a stout run defense and an ability to move the ball on the ground, Idaho may get a true measure on what lies ahead for it against Big Sky Conference competition.
Coach Paul Petrino hearkened back to one of the Vandals’ signature wins last season, against 25th-ranked North Dakota, to characterize Idaho’s challenge against the Cowboys.
“They’re a better North Dakota,” Petrino said. “They’re similar in how they want to win and how they play and how they do things. They’re just bigger and stronger.”
The Vandals can expect to be challenged on the ground, in stopping the run and in moving the ball themselves. Idaho had a pair of 100-yard rushers against CWU in Aundre Carter and Roshaun Johnson. It may be hard to duplicate the feat against the Cowboys.
Wyoming (2-0) opened the season with a flourish, a 37-31 win over Missouri, and followed it with an average effort, 23-14 over Texas State.
The Cowboys are hoping for better passing numbers from redshirt freshman quarterback Sean Chambers. Through two games, he has completed just 14 of 34 passes for 195 yards, with an interception and no touchdowns.
But mobile quarterbacks were Idaho’s kryptonite in 2018, and Chambers rushed for 120 yards against Missouri and 50 against Texas State. Stopping him will be key for the Vandals.
The Cowboys have issues on defense. They are allowing 408.5 passing yards per game. With a 4-3 base defense, featuring a single safety high in man or zone, Wyoming seems to want to win on defense by bringing pressure.
“There are a lot of line games up front,” Petrino said.
So far, the Cowboys haven’t been notably successful. If the Vandals can account for the Cowboys’ rush, it might turn loose their passing game.
Idaho’s Mason Petrino and Colton Richardson will play at quarterback in what is expected to be their final opportunity to win a starting role for the remainder of the season.
Jeff Cotton has come out of the blocks for the Vandals in the first two games with 22 catches for 228 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“His effort has been amazing,” coach Petrino said of Cotton.
Against CWU, Cotton faced a lot of single coverage. When he wasn’t targeted, he took a defender entirely out of the play.
“He was running a guy off all the way to the end zone,” Petrino added.
Wyoming has two advantages that plague visiting teams: the altitude at which its plays and its familiarity with the fierce winds that frequently sweep across their home stadium.
Years ago, when Joe Tiller was the Cowboys’ head coach, Petrino said he was on a staff visit to Wyoming to gain insights into its spread offense passing attack, which Tiller later perfected with Drew Brees at Purdue.
“The wind actually blew our van over,” Petrino said.
War Memorial Stadium’s altitude, the highest in college football, is also a factor.
“It’s always an issue,” Petrino said. “You try not to let it get in your head.”
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