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Cal football 2023 opponent first looks: Idaho
Cal's FCS opponent is no slouch. The Idaho Vandals could make life very difficult for the California Golden Bears.
There is no relief for Cal to find in non-conference play. After dealing with a mid-major offensive menace in North Texas and then the SEC gauntlet of chaotic Auburn, in come the rising Idaho Vandals to cap off the FCS schedule.
After years of struggling with the transition from FBS to FCS, the Vandals seem to have found their footing. Idaho is projected as a top ten FCS team and one of the big threats to win the national title this year.
The Vandals held 10-0 halftime leads against Washington State and Indiana last year. They handed then #3 Montana their first loss (in Montana!) and Idaho’s first win over Montana since 1999. They took Troy Taylor’s undefeated Sacramento State Hornets to the final seconds. They then bowed out of the FCS playoffs in a 45-42 shootout to Southeast Louisiana.
Idaho is very dangerous. Beware this game. The Bears have a very formidable road to starting 3-0.
The head coach
After bouncing around smaller college departments for a decade-plus, Jason Eck landed at South Dakota State as OC/OL coach, won FCS assistant coach of the year honors, then got hired at Idaho. He turned around the Vandals immediately, moving them from a 4-7 bottom dweller to a team that went 7-2 in FCS regular season play. Eck seems to have the Vandals on the up-and-up and could be sniffing FBS jobs in the coming years.
A lethal offense
Offensive coordinator Luke Schleusner knows wideouts having coached them up for years at South Dakota State, and the offensive skill players are returning nearly entirely intact. Idaho averaged 36 points per game last year and it’s expected those numbers will be about the same.
It’s quite possible that Cal’s best quarterbacking foe is coming this year. Gevani McCoy put up numbers, earning the Jerry Rice FCS Freshman of the Year Award. His redshirt freshman stats ring out as the real deal. His 171 passing efficiency ranked 4th in FCS. He posted a 69% completion rate, racking up 2719 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions.
Hayden Hatten (6’2″ 205 lbs) is the top WR in the subdivision, hauling in 83 catches for 1,209 yards and 16 TDs last year. Jermaine Jackson (5’7″ 165 lbs) wasn’t too shabby either, recording 54 receptions for 1,049 yards and five TDs. Idaho also brings back 6-foot-3 WR Terez Traynor. He appeared in only four games last year due to injury, but in 2021 he had an All-Conference season with 50 receptions for 737 yards and three touchdowns.
The Vandals also have a solid running rotation in Anthony Woods (800+ rush yards last year) and Nick Romano, with Woods to be the slight edge for RB1 and Romano to provide an extra kick in the return game (1216 return yards in his career at Idaho).
The big question is offensive line. Elijah Sanchez and Ayden Knapik return, and they will have Terrain Rainey entering as a transfer, but the Vandals simply will be rebuilding this unit. This will hopefully provide an opportunity for Cal’s defense to get a ton of pressure on McCoy and grind Idaho’s offense to dust.
This feels like it should be a good matchup on paper as Idaho’s pass attack meets Cal’s pass defense, but there could be a learning curve.
The pass defense should lock down, but the rest….
Idaho’s defense was solid last season, allowing only 25.4 points per game, but their front will be much weaker when Cal faces them this September. Idaho’s defensive line is completely starting from scratch with three starters gone (both All-Big Sky defensive ends have gone) and two All-Conference linebackers have moved on as well.
Defensive tackle Jahkari Larmond will be a force inside and transfer linebacker Tre Thomas figures to be the new impact player, but it’s safe to say the Vandals are thinner with only a few Vandals returning with snaps here.
The defensive backs will be the biggest strength of the Vandals, led by safety Tommy McCormick (61 tackles, four interceptions), safety Mathias Bertram (74 tackles), and cornerback Marcus Harris (53 tackles, 2 INTs, 12 pass breakups), and Murvin Kenion III (36 tackles, four interceptions, seven pass breakups).
Still, the Cal offense should be able to move the ball fairly easily down the field.
Cal has not played Idaho since 1934 when they were in the Pacific Coast Conference together. The Bears played the Vandals four times in a row in Berkeley from 1931-34, winning all four games by a combined total of 90-19.
Interestingly both teams would stay in the PCC for another quarter century, but they never played each other again before Cal moved onto the Pac-8 and Idaho to independence. The Vandals danced 60+ years between FBS haplessness and FCS success.