Idaho football coach Jason Eck’s mood changed from anxiously watching to see whether his team made the playoffs to a serious readiness for the opponent, Southeastern Louisiana University, the second-place finisher in the Southland Conference.
“We can’t be patting ourselves on the back for making the playoffs,” Eck said at a Monday news conference. “Now we have got to win this game.”
The Vandals (7-4, 5-2 Big Sky) face the Lions (8-3, 5-1 Southland) on Saturday in their first foray into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs since 1995, and began to install their game plan Monday afternoon.
Joining the strategic preparation were 10 of Idaho’s 12 seniors, who are enjoying their first winning season as college football players. Transfers Juliano Falaniko and Jason Hahlbeck saw success at USC and Morningside University, respectively, before coming to Idaho. But for seniors like captain Logan Floyd playing after Thanksgiving is a welcome change.
“The playoffs mean everything to me,” he says. “It’s being with my brothers. It’s our last chance to play college football.”
It also allows this senior class to start the Vandals, who last had a winning season in 2016, on a new trajectory.
“The only way is up for this program,” Floyd said. “I am super excited to see where it is going.”
He also thanked first-year coach Eck for sticking with him and his classmates.
“They believed in us from the beginning. They didn’t try to bring a bunch of new guys in,” Floyd said.
For his part, Eck saw the Vandals steadily improving and buying into the new coaching staff. He figured they would be a playoff team soon, but he was delighted to make it in his first season.
“We wanted to do this for the seniors. They did not have a three-year plan,” he said.
Against the Lions, Eck expects to see a team with a quality win this season against Southland Conference champion Incarnate Word. The Lions play a pair of quarterbacks in Eli Sawyer and Cephus Johnson III and like to get the ball to running backs Taron Jones, Carlos Washington Jr. and Jessie Britt on inside zone reads and pin-and-pulls where uncovered offensive linemen pull to the play side with the lineman next to them blocking down to cut off pursuit.
The Vandals have had trouble with that scheme in both of their Big Sky losses, against Sacramento State and UC Davis, Eck noted. Washington is the leading rusher with 586 yards and 11 touchdowns, but lately, Britt has had the hot hand with 210 yards rushing in the past two games.
On defense, Idaho expects to see a base of four down linemen. Charles Hill, a 6-4 245-pound defensive lineman was not even on the SLU two-deep chart, but he introduced himself with a pair of sacks against Nicholls State in the Lions’ final regular season game, said Eck.
The Lions tend to play a quarters defense with the cornerbacks and safeties taking a quarter of the field, and the safeties reading both run and pass. However, “they are not afraid to man up on the outside.”
Man-to-man coverage against Idaho wide receivers Hayden Hatten and Jermaine Jackson – the first and third-ranked receivers in the Big Sky respectively – has been a disaster for Vandals’ opponents. Hatten has 74 catches for 1,000 receiving yards with a single-season school record 15 touchdowns. Jackson has caught 49 balls for 938 yards and four touchdowns.
Gevani McCoy, a Jerry Rice Award finalist given to the top freshman quarterback in FCS football, has delivered most of those passes. For the season, McCoy is ranked fifth in the Big Sky with 185 completions in 272 attempts for 2,376 yards with 25 touchdowns and five interceptions.
However, he missed Idaho’s final regular -season game against Idaho State with a knee injury. Eck expects him to return by mid-week, but if McCoy is still feeling the effects of his injury the Vandals will go with freshman Jack Layne again. In his first start and second game action this year, Layne completed 18 of 29 passes for 255 yards with a touchdown and an interception against the Bengals.
“He feels like a junior or a senior. I trust him back there,” Floyd said. “I know he is not going to put the team in a bad spot.”
Just making the playoffs is an achievement, but Eck hopes the Vandals can make some noise in them. As an assistant at South Dakota State, he made six straight trips to the playoffs in 2016-21 and reached the championship game in 2020. The Jackrabbits and Vandals are on opposite sides of the playoff bracket. Until one loses, though, they are on a path to meet in the championship.
“One of their coaches texted me,” Eck acknowledged. “But we’ve got a lot of work to do.”