MOSCOW, Idaho – In Idaho’s first game of last spring’s season against Eastern Washington, a 28-21 win, Vandals All-America linebacker Tre Walker made 15 tackles.
If he has a similarly impressive performance Saturday when the Vandals travel to Cheney to take on the Football Championship Subdivision second-ranked Eagles, it will be because the defensive line in front of him is continuing to function at a dominating if unheralded level.
Interior linemen Rahsaan Crawford, Jonah Kim and Noah Elliss will be attacking gaps and attracting double-team blocking from EWU’s offensive line. Edge rushers Charles Akanno and Kayode Rufai will be hemming in Eagles All-America quarterback Eric Barriere, preventing him from racing around the corner or throwing in rhythm on the move.
Their roles of freeing up Idaho’s outstanding linebackers to make tackles behind the line of scrimmage don’t lend themselves to attracting glory, but the Vandals’ defensive linemen are looking forward to doing what they do against EWU.
“There’s not many times in a college experience where you get to play the same team three times in a calendar year. It’s all you can ask for in a rivalry,” Rufai said.
The Vandals and Eagles split a pair of close games during the pandemic spring season of 2020, with each team winning by a touchdown at home.
“I’m very excited. They’ve become kind of our rival. It’s always fun playing against these good teams,” Elliss said.
“I’m not somebody who needs all the glory,” Kim said. “I just want to be as useful as I can, look to make plays and take what’s there.”
The Eagles enter the game 6-0, boasting a 35-33 win against UNLV, a Football Bowl Subdivision team, and a 34-28 takedown of Montana, ranked fourth nationally when they played.
Idaho raced to a 68-0 win over Simon Fraser to open the season but dropped consecutive games to Indiana, Oregon State and UC Davis before getting its first Big Sky Conference win of the season against Portland State, 42-35.
Against EWU, expect Idaho to play three- and four-man defensive fronts, employ twists inside to make offensive lines hunt an uncovered lineman and rotate players nearly every play to keep the pressure on opposing blockers.
“We have such a deep rotation. It keeps guys fresh,” Kim said.
In the Vandals’ most recent game, the homecoming victory against Portland State, linebackers Walker and Hogan Hatten made 18 and 10 tackles, respectively, in part because of the pressure applied up front by Elliss (seven tackles), Akanno (five tackles), Kim, Rufai and Crawford.
“We play to collapse the pocket,” Elliss said. “We don’t want offensive linemen holding onto us. We are attacking the gaps on defense. We want to be free at all times.”
Crawford, who may be lucky to get a glimpse of daylight Saturday, said the team’s interior linemen “want to eat up a lot of blocks.”
Akanno is returning to the form that made him nearly unblockable before he tore an Achilles tendon in 2019. He said the Vandals’ ends need to play “fast and physical.”
Barriere offers a constant challenge to defenses to keep him from breaking free for long runs or completing passes on the run.
“You’ve got to trust your instincts,” Rufai said of corralling such a dynamic quarterback. “You’ve got to let it fly free. He has that athleticism that changes your rushing. You have to have an idea of who you are going against, and you have to chase him down as he moves.”
Taking on the Eagles with the momentum of their win against PSU – and leaving Cheney with a victory against one of the top teams in the country – could launch the Vandals into their best season since they beat Colorado State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl as an FBS team in 2016.
But the Vandals’ defensive linemen aren’t a stick-to-business, resolute bunch for nothing. They are approaching this game with the same unsung deliberate attention to detail and block-absorbing effort that has let the linebackers star but which they are using to fashion their own identity.
Rufai characterizes their mindset.
EWU “is just like Portland State,” he said. “It’s 1-0. We’ve just got to keep stacking those 1-0’s. It’s 1-0 each week. Keep getting another one.”