The Aggies are back from their bye week and looking for a second straight victory. The Idaho Vandals visit Las Cruces for the Tough Enough To Wear Pink game. This week we've enlisted the help of Theo Lawson, the current editor of Vandal Nation, the Idaho Argonaut's outstanding sports blog, to give Aggie fans an idea of how the Vandals' season has been going and what they can expect to see on Saturday night when the two teams square off.
The Vandals have started the season 1-5, what's been the biggest factor in the slow start to the season?
Idaho lost a number of seniors from last season's team, a number of them were signed as NFL free agents and three were drafted to NFL squads. As Nate Enderle's back-up, Brian Reader has had some big shoes to fill and has yet to settle into the Vandals' offensive scheme. Our running game took a big hit with the injury to ASU transfer Ryan Bass who is questionable for Saturday's game and Princeton McCarty, Troy Vital and Kama Bailey have struggled thus far, forcing Idaho to turn to Reader and the passing game. Problems within the secondary plagued the defense the first couple of games but as a whole, the defense was solid against Virginia and La. Tech. An injury to senior captain Michael Cosgrove has set the defense back but he should be healthy this weekend.
Starting quarterback Brian Reader has had a bit of an inconsistent start to the season as well. What has been the biggest issue for him in taking over for Nathan Enderle?
Despite Reader's inconsistency, coach Akey has remained confident in the senior's abilities. While Reader has proven to be more mobile in the pocket, Enderle's accuracy and arm strength are two of the reasons he's competing for the Chicago Bears' second string position. Reader hasn't been able to command the offense and talked about his confidence dropping steadily with each loss. Only completing 40 percent of his passes last weekend, he's struggled with accuracy but offensive coordinator Steve Axman claimed Reader has thrived during practice this week. With Biletnikoff Award watch list nominee Mike Scott and Hornung Award watch list nominee Justin Veltung, a lack of reliable targets doesn't seem to be the problem. Reader will need to have complete control over his mental approach to prove himself Saturday.
The Vandal running game has also struggled but they're going to be going up against an Aggie run defense that has been a bit porous. How much of a point of emphasis with the run game be for the Vandals in this game on Saturday?
Like I mentioned earlier, the injury to Ryan Bass proved to be a major setback to the run game. If Reader continues to struggle, the Aggie run defense must watch out for Princeton McCarty, who leads the team in rushing yards. McCarty broke out for 90 yards on 14 carries against Virginia and Troy Vital has been the Vandals’ reliable short-yardage converter. The running backs are quick and like to pound the middle but typically won’t venture to the outside for large gains.
Who is the best player on offense and the best player on defense for the Vandals and what kind of impact can they have on this game?
Offensively, I would have to say wide receiver Mike Scott. A junior college transfer from Foothill College in Northern California, Scott has adapted to the Division I level and his addition to the Biletnikoff watch list has proven why he can be lethal to any team’s secondary. Scott’s ability to snag some of the more challenging passes gives Reader some margin for error and although he only has one touchdown on the season, he’s caught for 450 yards and has the athletic ability and work ethic to make him one of the conference’s premier receivers. Defensively I would say senior captain Tre’Shawn Robinson. The absence of Cosgrove has forced Tre’Shawn to command the defensive line. Robinson tallied 14 tackles in the loss to La. Tech and despite a lack of height; he has the strength and speed to cause the Aggies offensive problems.
Who is a player on both offense and defense that is under the radar but could be poised for a breakout game on Saturday?
Tight end Michael LaGrone has been under the radar for the majority of his Vandal career but the underclassman has accounted for two of Idaho’s touchdowns this season and can breakout at any point during a game. LaGrone has 93 yards on nine receptions this season and he provides depth to the tight end position. Linebacker Korey Toomer had the game of his career last Saturday, posting 10 tackles and two sacks. After seeing minimal action last season, Toomer has solidified his spot as one of Idaho’s most trusted defensive players and has the stats to back it up. With three sacks on the season, one interception and 36 tackles, he is a multi-dimensional player who leaves it all on the field.
When the Vandals have the ball, what can Aggie fans expect to see them do? Do they run mainly out of a pro style set, or a spread or something else?
Idaho typically run out of a pro style set but have struggled with it and have optioned multiple other formations. The Vandals employ a run first, play action offense that can be effective when the receivers perfect their routes and the blockers solidify the o-line.
When the Vandals are on defense, what can Aggie fans expect to see in terms of blitzing, are they aggressive with their pressure and what kind of pass coverage do the Vandals like to play?
The defensive line has had just five sacks in six games and coach Akey has stressed the importance of “getting off of Gilligan’s Island” to pressure the quarterback. With Cosgrove back, defensive coordinator Mark Criner may opt with the blitz but Idaho’s aggression cost them two weeks ago at Virginia. In overtime, Virginia was in a 3rd and 25 situation. Idaho blitzed, leaving numerous receivers open, and a short screen pass saw a Cavalier practically walk into the end zone, ultimately giving Virginia the win.
The Vandals will win this game if…
Brian Reader and the offense can get back on track. The defensive issues have taken a back seat and injuries have had a toll on the team’s morale. If Reader can complete 60 percent of his passes, Idaho’s chances of winning will be increased by 20 percent or so. Offensive coordinator Axman talked about balancing the running and passing game and if the Vandals can achieve that, they will succeed offensively. Tre’Shawn Robinson spoke of tension that exists between the two teams after the Vandals’ Jojo Dickson suffered a season-ending injury last year when the Aggies came to Moscow. The defense will be fired up a healthy Cosgrove will be essential to the defensive line’s quarterback pressure.
The Aggies will win this game if…
They can exploit our defense, break down our secondary and foil the offense. While Idaho haven’t been successful in putting points up on the board, the defense has prevented its opponents from doing the same. The secondary has been shaky at times and don’t have the agility or sprint speed to keep up with some of the quicker receivers they’ve seen. Pressuring Reader has led to overthrown, underthrown and intercepted passes on many occasions even though the offensive line has for the most part, held their own. The Vandals, who play in an air conditioned dome, won’t be accustomed to the Las Cruces heat and fatigue could be an issue late in the game.
Your predicted outcome for the game:
Considering the circumstances, Idaho is riding a three-game win streak against the Aggies and it doesn’t look to end in Las Cruces. Although NMSU look to be a much-improved squad this term, the Vandals need a win in order to regain the fans’ trust. Nevertheless, it will be a close one that could come down to a field goal in the fourth quarter or an overtime period. I see Idaho coming out on top of a 21-20 decision where defense will rule the game.