CJ Jordan Cutrell Haywood inside white lines

Zach Wilkinson/Tribune

Idaho wide receiver Cutrell Haywood (7) continues to block a Southern Utah defender after losing his helmet in the second quarter of a Big Sky conference matchup at the Kibbie Dome on Saturday afternoon. Idaho defeated Southern Utah 33-32.

We could again discuss Idaho’s coronavirus-triggered roster shake-ups and yet another thrilling finish for the depth-lacking Vandals, who were booted out of the FCS playoff picture Saturday by a hungry Idaho State team determined to burst their northern rival's bubble.

It’s been a wild spring ride for Idaho (2-2), which is down to two remaining games on this delayed Big Sky schedule after its sloppy offense equated to a 24-22 loss at Pocatello’s Holt Arena.

There’s not been much regularity in this UI season since it kicked off Feb. 27. We’ve had plenty of time to address the strangeness of it all: the missing players, the preparatory nature of the campaign. And we’ll probably be afforded more chances over the next two weeks.

So for now, let’s get back to basics — some old-fashioned football talk.

What seem to be the Vandals’ issues?

The first one is familiar.

The present situation at quarterback has suddenly become as hairy and conversation-starting as it was for much of the past two seasons, when the options were Pullman’s Mason Petrino and Lewiston’s Colton Richardson.

Feels like forever ago.

Either way, “optimism” wasn’t the most popular word then. Predicting what the Vandals did on a weekly basis from 2018-19 was an adventure, though historical data will show that the odds for disappointment were always steady.

The Vandals’ prospects under center, I’d argue, have improved wholesale.

But it’s still tough to get a reliable gauge on UConn grad transfer Mike Beaudry, who’d been named the clear-cut No. 1 for this spring season a while back.

Sometimes he looks like an FBS guy: settled in the pocket, with the kind of size you’d expect, an array of possible throws and an awareness of slight openings to scurry through as the pass rush crashes in. Otherwise, he’s sort of all over the place … overthrows, predominantly.

Beaudry, returning from UI’s COVID protocol (presumably) after missing the Southern Utah game two weekends ago, was sandwiched by two charging Bengals for a sack in the second quarter, when UI was beginning to find its legs, yet still down 14-0.

To the locker room he went. Although it'll depend on the severity of the issue, it's imaginable that he remains sidelined Saturday, when the Vandals travel to Cheney for a shot at spoiling Eastern Washington’s postseason aspirations.

True freshman CJ Jordan probably would have replaced Beaudry, but the Portland product was absent. He’d been sacked hard too, a week before, and sent off the field.

For stretches in Idaho’s defeat of the Thunderbirds, Jordan played like that new-age QB everyone’s talking about — the one who fools incoming linebackers with a hesitation, who makes a broken play work with a 7-yard rush angled toward the sideline, who can pull off sidearm flips that end up going for chunk gains. And if it’s designed, he’s got the arm to fling it.

Not to get carried away. That’s a rose-tinted first impression, a best-case scenario. Coach Paul Petrino has not shied from talking up Jordan and his potential.

As for Nikhil Nayar: Two games ago, the third-year third-stringer warmed Vandal hearts, stepping in and delivering with a poised pair of pass-heavy drives, and the clinching TD with seven ticks on the counter.

His 11-for-34 follow-up was, eh, less encouraging. UI’s QB room, without warning, went from three-deep to one available, and the one available isn’t yet equipped for that long of a day.

“We had guys open, we just had struggles hitting them,” Petrino said on a UI radio show.

“When you have the exact play that beats that exact scheme, then you don’t hit them, that makes it rough.”

It’s challenging to score without stable QB play, and it’s near impossible to win consistently in the Big Sky when you’re managing 25 points per game.

Nayar wasn’t staying super clean in the pocket either. His first-drive interception was a result of pressure, and he often took off, spooked by incoming Bengals.

Perfect protection isn’t the expectation this season. Third-year starters Logan Floyd and Matt Faupusa are O-line anchors, but the Vandals are experimenting with true freshmen at center and quick guard, and rotating another rookie with a sophomore at quick tackle. Their touted juco signee at center got hurt almost immediately this year.

Petrino has said that position will take ironing out and patience.

And all the Vandals can do is wait for their receiver pool to refill.

Apparently, UI only had three of them available Saturday, yet the coach said the remaining pass-catchers were still getting open.

In any case, the two leaders in this group are solid. Hayden Hatten (35 catches, 462 yards, three TDs) has been a physical, athletic, sticky-handed revelation after playing as a reserve rookie tight end last season. Mainstay Cutrell Haywood has posted 1,280 yards and 14 scores on his career.

One more passing target could do wonders. Speedy JC transfer Jermaine Jackson was meant for that role, but he hasn’t appeared since suffering a Week 1 leg injury.

UI might aim to find help on that front from tight ends Connor Whitney and ever-improving wrecking ball Logan Kendall. As is, the Vandals don't have a No. 3 look.

While the production from a three-headed running game predicated on bruising, inside carries has become more effective the past two weeks, it hasn’t been dependable — or versatile — enough to shoulder the offense during disjointed passing stretches.

Aside from punting/kicking units that are shaping up to be the Big Sky’s best, the least concern lies with Idaho’s defensive front, as expected.

To keep it short: The stand-up linebackers are sure-tackling stars, and the defensive line’s push has been enough to bottle backs and rattle signal-callers into multiple second-half mistakes in three of UI’s four games.

The pass rush hasn't always been there — see first halves of the SUU and ISU games, during which comfy QBs torched Idaho early — but it always seems to adapt and factor heavily into outcomes.

The Vandal rushing defense, spearheaded by All-American candidates at LB in Christian Elliss and Tre Walker, is tops in the Big Sky by more than 20 yards allowed per game.

The Idaho front was responsible for five second-half Bengal drives stalling out. The linemen stuffed ISU’s final series, providing the offense a last-ditch crack at the win, which amounted to nothing.

They also got to Bengal quarterback Tyler Vander Waal on a cross-field flea-flicker in the third quarter, leading to a Jaxon Woodward pick.

As a whole, 13 of the team’s 22 points Saturday were attributable to the Vandal defense.

But Idaho’s pass coverage has too commonly been at fault for deficits.

Deep shots to striding, single-covered receivers and broken intermediate coverages have been distressing.

UI’s efficiency on that end ranks second-to-last in the league. In an average contest, opposing quarterbacks light up Idaho for 360 yards.

By all appearances, UI is tinkering back there, praying weekly that it has all its pieces available.

All DB spots, save two — senior free safety Tyrese Dedmon and senior corner Jalen Hoover — could very well be up for grabs again come the fall. The depth there will improve, and a senior with captain potential will be added in Montana transfer Dareon Nash.

Three freshmen and two juco transfers are seeing heavy workloads. It'll likely take time for new starters Woodward and corner Wyryor Noil (who had a diving, one-on-one pick vs. ISU) to sustain a competitive pace continuously in games featuring high-powered offenses inclined to test them frequently.

For just the on-field product, that’s my overarching, outside take. As for the other stuff, well, it was nice to take a pause.

Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 627-3209.