Idaho Football Offensive Preview
Idaho is a Top 10 FCS team coming off a dominating performance against FBS Nevada. Can the California Golden Bears bounce back after last week's disappointing loss?
Let’s be clear here: Idaho is a top FCS team, and definitely to be respected as an opponent. They took a good Washington State team last year down to the wire (played them closer than Cal did, in fact) and have already beat one FBS opponent this year. Nevada is their first FBS win since Idaho dropped back down to the FCS (the first and only school to drop back down to FCS voluntarily).
A one-time conference opponent in the Pacific Coast Conference, Idaho declined to join the succeeding conference which went on to become the Pac-8, instead becoming a charter member of the Big Sky Conference instead (I hear there are a few openings in the PAC, if you guys are still interested). In case you see that “Cal is 4-0 vs. Idaho” stat somewhere, just know that those four games were conference matchups back in the 1930s.
Second year head coach Jason Eck led Idaho to a 7-5 record and an appearance in the FCS playoffs last year. Also, he appears to be some sort of maniac, which likely provides a psychological advantage to his team:
With all that said, this is a game that Cal should win. Cal is no stranger to tough FCS matchups—like Troy Taylor’s Sacramento State team—but if you remember that matchup, you remember that Cal took a comfortable lead by halftime, got complacent, and had to deal with Sac State roaring back in the second half before Cal escaped with the victory. Cal will not have the luxury of being complacent against Idaho.
Idaho is led by the 2022 Jerry Rice Award winner (i.e. FCS Freshman of the Year) quarterback Gevani McCoy. McCoy is a mobile quarterback with a strong enough arm, accurate, and does a great job of extending plays and buying time in the pocket (I find that’s generally a sign of good coaching, when a quarterback has the ability to take off but instead does his best to stay in the pocket and look downfield). Idaho’s offense showed a lot of creativity in scheming receivers open (usually across the middle of the field), and so McCoy often just needs to wait to find those receivers.
He doesn’t have the biggest arm (and it’s unfortunate, because I’m comparing him to Pac-12 quarterbacks), but he can definitely take a nice shot downfield:
McCoy is a dual-threat quarterback, but you might forget that he is because he prefers to make plays with his arm. He still has the ability to do this:
McCoy had 98 total rushing yards in 12 games last season, but he’s already up to 71 rushing yards in 2 games this season. It might be part of the gameplan for McCoy to start using his feet more:
When McCoy buys time in the pocket, he often likes to roll out and throw on the run. This, of course, can be hit or miss. He can find his receiver between the defenders:
Or it can be a dangerous throw off-target:
As a young quarterback, I did see a lot of “freshman mistakes” watching the 2022 season. He has a tendency to stare down receivers and force throws to his favorite targets (namely, Hayden Hatten and Jermaine Jackson). In the following play, he is baited by the corner into making a mistake:
Speaking of his tendency to lock onto a target, here he makes a presnap decision to throw, and stares down his receiver the whole way:
And as good as his receiver Hayden Hatten is (we’ll cover him later), McCoy relied far too much on him to make plays. Here he forces a throw into double coverage:
With the game on the line last year against Washington State, he completely overlooked a wide open receiver (the tight end, Connor Whitney), who he could have hit for either a potential score, or at least enough time to spike the ball and run another play. Instead, he threw it into triple coverage intended for Jermaine Jackson:
Last year, it seemed that McCoy’s worst plays were during critical junctures — under pressure, attempting to lead the team to a comeback, etc. He plays well when he’s comfortable (and I am sure he’ll grow more comfortable with more experience), so it’s important for the Cal defense to make sure McCoy is particularly uncomfortable: under siege from an aggressive defensive line, and forcing McCoy to play from behind.
The Idaho rushing attack will be led by another player coming of a stellar freshman season, Anthony Woods. Woods is a very good running back, definitely better than most of the running backs I see in FCS games. He’s a well-rounded back, with good patience and vision, but also the ability to make a nice cut or run through a defender; whatever the situation calls for. Watch here as he lets blocks develop (looks like the run to the outside was not there and cuts back), then both weaves his way through traffic dodging defenders before finally running through a tackle to pick up a first down:
He shows good balance:
And he can be exceedingly patient. Again it looks like he creates something out of nothing, forging his own path and running back across the field where he has skill position players blocking for him (they lined up with 2 RBs in the backfield, and at one point you can see the other waving for Woods to come the other way — this can’t have been how they drew it up):
He had the nicest run of the season so far here when he slipped under a tackle, and cut back to break off what could have been a 99 yard rushing TD had he not stepped out of bounds:
And here is the most disrespectful touchdown I’ve seen all year, as he speeds to the outside, realizes the defender can’t catch him, and eases off the gas to waltz into the endzone:
Idaho is also likely to involve their running backs in the pass game (sometimes even when lining up multiple RBs in the backfield), and so they have some running backs with good hands, like Nick Romano and Elisha Cummings.
Nick Romano looks like he will have a bigger role this year after deal with injuries in previous seasons. Here he finds a seam to break off a good run:
Elisha Cummings on the other hand is a bit undersized at 5’8” 180 lbs., but he does show off some nice speed:
Here’s an example of Idaho using the running backs in the passing game, with Cummings as the checkdown:
We can also probably expect a fair amount of trickery from Idaho as underdogs. Here Cummings throws a touchdown pass to the QB Gevani McCoy:
Also worth mentioning is NAU transfer George Robinson, a Berkeley native, who will likely take over short yardage situation duties from Roshaun Johnson.
The Vandals have a deep running back room and will probably look to get them involved, but I expect Anthony Woods will attract the bulk of the defense’s attention.
Idaho Football is the only team in the FCS with two 1,000-yard receivers returning this season in Preseason Big Sky Offensive MVP Hayden Hatten and Preseason All-Conference honoree Jermaine Jackson. Unsurprisingly these two receivers made up the vast majority of QB Gevani McCoy’s catches.
I took surprisingly few highlights of WR Hayden Hatten, probably because he was so frequently a target and so routinely made his catches look easy—he frequently found himself wide open and didn’t need to make impressive catches. Hatten averaged an absurd 110 yards per game last season, and he’s a player with NFL potential. Originally a tight end (he was a 3-star TE coming out of high school, with some FBS offers and one P5 offer), he slimmed down to become a big-bodied wide receiver with good hand skills and body control, perfect for contested catches over smaller defensive backs.
Hatten does a good job of using deceptive bursts of speed to create separation, but when he is covered, he uses strong hands to make catches away from the DBs:
Hatten is a much more athletic prospect than I am used to seeing watch FCS games, and this translates to an ability to create yards after the catch:
And for what it’s worth, he threw a pretty decent ball:
In contrast to the big-bodied Hatten, Jermaine Jackson is the undersized but speedy slot receiver who can be involved in run game or take the top off the defense.
Although he typically uses speed to create separation, he’s also shown some strong hands catching the ball:
Here Jackson finds himself open in zone coverage and uses his speed to pick up yards after the catch:
Jackson absolutely can take the top off a defense:
Washington State, in particular, struggled to cover Jackson, and he had one of his biggest games of the year against them.
Idaho also has a pretty solid tight end in Connor Whitney, one of the leaders of this team. He’s a solid blocker, and like most of the Idaho receivers, has shown pretty solid catching skills when the ball has come his way:
Typically, however, Whitney is blocking, and his receptions come when the defense forgets to pick him up as an eligible receiver.
Jordan Dwyer is yet another Vandal coming off a nice freshman season. He typically plays outside receiver, and here he beats the Wazzu DB for a touchdown on the back shoulder throw:
And here he makes a nice adjustment to the ball thrown downfield:
Idaho is also expecting big things this season from the rangy Michael Graves and Terez Traynor. Here Graves shakes a tackle and takes it to the house:
Traynor, a transfer from Western Kentucky, has shown the ability to make nice catches down the sidelines:
Idaho has a surfeit of talent at the receiver position, and though QB Gevani McCoy loves to throw to Hatten and Jackson, Idaho is expecting their other receivers to step up as well.
Unsurprisingly, WR Jermaine Jackson is a dangerous return man. Here he returns the kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown:
And a punt return TD:
Ricardo Chavez is both the punter and the kicker, with a career long 47-yard FG.
I don’t expect we’ll see too much of the kicker though, as FCS teams usually go for it on 4th down against FBS competition, as you’re probably not going to upset an FBS team with FGs.
Idaho is a very respectable FCS opponent, but this is a game that Cal should be able to handle. Cal’s defensive line will be overwhelming for the Idaho offensive line, and will likely generate a lot of pressure on QB Gevani McCoy to force him into making mistakes. Idaho has a very deep receiver room, but Cal has the best secondary this team has seen since The Takers in 2018. North Texas and Auburn didn’t have quarterbacks with the ability to attack the middle of the field, but Idaho does, and so I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more of our safeties this game (has anyone even tried throwing it Patrick McMorris’s way yet?). Idaho should be a good preview of what we can expect from our pass defense once we hit conference play, as Cal will face a number of future NFL QBs this season (say, as early as next week).
If Cal takes Idaho seriously, this is a match that Cal should win. If Cal is sleeping on Idaho, we can expect some trouble.