This season will go down as one where Paul Petrino's team showed progress. Right?
On October 24, the Idaho Vandals were 3-4 and enjoying what would be the clear high point of their 2015 season: the team was coming off two #FunBelt conference wins, two where the defense did its part and limited Troy and ULM to 16 and 13 points respectively. There was rumbling, not loud but loud enough for us to hear: could Idaho go, you know, bowling?
Well, no. The team promptly lost its four next games and that was that but look at the bigger picture, Vandals fans. 2015's 4-8 record is much, much better than last season's 1-10.
Say what you will, but the Idaho offense more than held its end of the bargain. With 364 total points, or 30.3 per game, the unit ranked 57th in the FBS and, except for a game against then-No. 8 USC (which, fine...), scored at least 19 points in every single game. In short, Idaho won the three games where its defense showed up, as well as another one.
After one of the better freshman seasons in school history, Matt Linehan somehow improved for his second season at the helm. He gained 2,989 yards, and 7.65 per attempt, and completed 63.4 percent of his passes on his way to 16 touchdowns. More importantly, he cut down his interceptions from 18 to 11 this season.
That's legitimately very good: the Vandals were 28th in Division I with 281.3 yards per game, while the S&P+ says they were 71st. Let's also mention that Linehan had wide receiver Dezmon Epps for only six games in 2015 for reasons unrelated to football. In his absence, others stepped up: Callen Hightower, Buck Cowan and Deon Watson each gained between 551 and 749 yards.
Meanwhile, the Idaho ground attack lacked the balance and depth of its aerial counterpart: Elijhaa Penny was great on the ground, rushing for 1,174 yards and 10 touchdowns on just 247 carries—but he was really the lone bright spot.
The defense is where the 2015 Idaho football season took a turn for the worse and the downright ugly. The unit gave up a whopping 505 points, or 42.1 per game. You simply can't win many games with as poor a defense as this one.
How about some numbers? Okay sure. The Vandals gave up at least 40 points a ridiculous eight times, and the team lost all eight of these games. That's right: had the defense simply been just a shade better than how futile it was (the second worst in the FBS, per S&P+), maybe the team could have pulled out a few more wins and, who knows, received an invitation to a bowl game or something.
Maybe you're wondering how a team can surrender so many points; it's by being hopeless against the run in the run-prolific Sun Belt. This season, opponents never really tested Chris Edwards, Jordan Grabski, Dorian Clark and others from the Idaho secondary because they never had to. If Idaho ranked 54th against the pass, it's in large part because it allowed 273.3 yards per game on the ground, good for 127th.
The 4-8 record is disappointing only because it seemed like the Vandals were right on the cusp of a season that could have been potentially special and because the one team Idaho beat over the second half of its season was Texas State, seemingly the team everyone beat.
But still, the Vandals offense was for the most part a legitimate force and when the defense also did its part, the result was a sight to behold and the team won games.
I'll take Matt Linehan for team MVP, thank you very much. The Idaho offense was a legitimate force in 2015 under the guidance of their quarterback, who improved upon an already solid freshman season and who was good enough this past season for an All-Sun Belt Honorable mention. (They give these to just about everyone, sure, but it still means something.)
What comes next for the Idaho Vandals? Well, Paul Petrino remains in Moscow, which means that the offense should again be a team strength because every Petrino "is going to move the football." More than the head coach's presence, I think it's the return of Linehan that is cause for optimism, not to mention that he'll have Hightower, Cowan and Watson to throw to again next season.
But will the defense show up?