Idaho Vandals building for the long haul
MOSCOW, Idaho – On October 15, 2022, University of Idaho first-year head coach Jason Eck stood near centerfield at the University of Montana’s Washington-Grizzly Stadium hoisting up the Little Brown Stein.
His Vandals had just secured their most impactful win since returning to the Big Sky Conference in 2014, completing a string of small feats that officially put them back on the map.
First, they hung tight with two FBS teams to begin the season (Washington State and Indiana), a vast improvement from two 40-point blowouts to similar opponents (Indiana and Oregon State) just a year before. Then, they went on the road to Northern Arizona, starting conference play with a road victory, something they had just two of since their reintegration to the BSC.
But the cat was formally out of the bag in this moment, when IU invaded Missoula to knock off one of the country’s Top 5 teams – surprise, surprise.
This season, though, Idaho won’t be able to sneak up on the competition. There will be no moral victories, either. They’ve promptly transcended from the conference’s depths to its top tier - unless they happen to be a flash in the pan, something Eck has been prepping his team to avoid.
“I think last year people probably thought they would be playing the same old Idaho but now there’s no more surprises. I definitely expect that we’re going to get everybody’s best shot but that’s part of our growth and we have to embrace that,” Eck said. “We have to play at a higher level this year than last year. If we play just as well as last year and do things exactly the same as last year, we’re not going to have as good of a year. We need to improve because it’s a tougher path.”
The Vandals will meet with the Weber State Wildcats and Montana State Bobcats in 2023, both upper echelon FCS teams that didn’t make their schedule in 2022. They’ll see a pair of new FBS foes in Nevada and California but with no intentions of keeping it close – this time, they want to win.
Reaching the next level – winning a conference championship, or even a national title – will require overcoming these challenges. There’s no margin for error when trying to assert yourself as one of the best and not just a one-year wonder.
“I don’t think we’re too far off,” Eck said. “We were good enough to go into a tough environment and beat a top 5 team on the road. We played Sacramento State to the end on the road. I don’t think we’re really far off, but I do think we have to improve our consistency.”
That may come naturally with IU bringing back some serious talent in major spots.
Getting the band back together
When Eck finished his playing career at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, legendary head coach Barry Alvarez took him on as a graduate assistant. One line oft used by the now retired College Football Hall of Famer always stuck with him: “If your players feel like they are getting better, you’re not going to have a moral problem.”
And in a season where the improvement was evident, most Vandals have chosen to come back for another ride. That’s step one in Idaho’s continued creep towards supremacy as it has retained the bulk of its difference makers aside from just two would’ve-been contributors in now-Georgia Tech linebacker Paul Moala and new Fresno State defensive end Kemari Bailey.
But easy could’ve-been FBS players like freshman quarterback sensation and Big Sky Freshman of the Year, Gevani McCoy, makes his return to Moscow while Big Sky First Team wide receiver and potential preseason Offensive MVP Hayden Hatten will be his main target.
Though a handful of other players were lost via graduation, most guys who could stay did, and with one full season in Eck’s system under their belt, should be set for another jump.
This high retention rate isn’t exclusive to just the players; nine of 10 full-time assistant coaches have returned for another run in the Big Sky. Only one – Tyler Yelk, the Vandals 2022 safeties coach – left to become the NFL Philadelphia Eagles assistant to the head coach.
For the most part, players and coaches suddenly have no reason to go elsewhere. Idaho can help them achieve everything they desire. Plus, the Big Sky has had players drafted to the NFL in back-to-back years but it’s this culture shift that has helped Idaho, and will continue to help it, reemerge in short order.
“I think that there are so many similarities with our program and our state to the Dakota schools and the Montana schools. A loyal fan base, people who care about football in the state, good facilities we can recruit to and a lot of good players coming back and proven players and an exceptional coaching staff,” Eck said. “We have pretty good continuity.”
“I definitely expect that we’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”
Planning for progression
While being the people’s coach like Eck can get you the personnel and community support needed for success, the Xs and Os are ultimately what it comes down to, and his vision for what improved consistency will look like is clear and concise: physicality.
(Quarterback Gevani McCoy | PC: @VandalFootball)
Maybe a cliché statement in the game of football, physicality is one of the areas of importance in the Big Sky that separates the men from the boys. Unironically, co-champions Montana State and Sacramento State were the only two conference teams averaging over 200 rushing yards per game last season.
“I think we have to get more physical on the line of scrimmage … I think that’s critical,” Eck said. “Look at the games we lost. We lost to UC Davis and Sacramento State and they both ran it really well on us. We want to be a team that stops the run … Teams like MSU that run it really well and are good up front, you’re not going to out-finesse them, you have to out physical them.”
It's two-way physicality Eck wants the Vandals to utilize, believing it’ll lend itself to that consistency they’re looking for. That effort is non-negotiable.
“I do think that your running game and defense are things that are not as susceptible to bad days,” Eck said. “You can have a day where, your QB, almost like a golf swing, doesn’t have his best day throwing the ball but your run game defeats that. It doesn’t have an off day like that, being physical doesn’t have an off day like that. Same thing with stopping the run.”
Even then, Eck says it might be tough to dethrone a team like Montana State. One that, under will-be third-year head coach Brent Vigen, took the same speedy rise to relevancy that Idaho is taking.
“I’d be hard pressed to pick against MSU,” Eck said. “They’ve had two great years in a row with a great coach and their QB coming back who is a great player, so I’d be hard pressed to pick against them as the conference champs.”
But that doesn’t mean he thinks its unattainable. In fact, Eck senses improvement – however, just how much improvement is hard to say until the season starts to take form.
One thing is for sure though: the Vandals almost certainly aren’t a flash in the pan. They plan on sticking around.
“Are we ready to go to point where we can win every game and go to that level, I don’t know, that remains to be seen,” Eck said. “But I definitely think its attainable to make a one game jump and go from 6-2 in conference to 7-1 and continue to play good football at home and on the road.”