Idaho’s defense takes big step forward

Tribune/Pete CasterBefore he got injured, Idaho linebacker Charles Akanno (right) played a big part of the Vandals’ defensive resurgence in 2019.

MOSCOW — It doesn’t take much for the ever-insightful Rahsaan Crawford to provide some sort of fitting analogy.

Idaho football’s defensive leader at nose guard certainly recognizes the distinct progressions on his side of the ball. From the 64 tackles for loss to the 16 takeaways and clear improvements in containing quick-passing, hurry-up offenses, he knows the Vandals’ “study habits” are more effective than last year.

“If you look at it play for play, we honestly played pretty well on defense,” he said.

He’s also refreshingly matter-of-fact.

“You might do all your homework, but when it’s time for the test, what’re your grades?” the junior said when asked to grade UI’s defense in 2019. “It’s a C+, if you’re not getting the results that you need to get.”

Nobody would be mad if Crawford cut himself some slack — UI’s defense, which returns all but two players on its two-deep next year, didn’t have a ton of help.

In Big Sky Conference play, the Vandals have allowed 68 points on short fields. With 40-or-fewer yards to cover because of offensive giveaways, Montana scored 21 points, Weber State six and Sacramento State 21 on Idaho’s defense, helping obscure an otherwise solid defensive season by going 4-7 overall and 2-5 in the conference — basically, a rewrite of the Vandals’ woeful 2018 season.

But to ask defenders, or peek into box scores, a different tale is spun.

Most striking is the fact the secondary has helped UI turn around into the Big Sky’s leader in pass-defense efficiency a year after it came in second-to-worst.

Vandals coach Paul Petrino points to the rapid maturation of freshman Utah State transfer corner Christian Nash and junior strong safety Tyrese Dedmon — who’s forced four turnovers in the previous two weeks — and senior Sedrick Thomas’ transition to safety to make up for the departures of Davontae Ginwright and Satchel Escalante, whom ended their Vandal careers early thanks to injury and transfer.

Yet “it all starts with Lloyd (Hightower),” Petrino said of the senior, a seldom-tested two-year starter at cornerback.

With Hightower’s blooming into one of the league’s best, the secondary’s confidence has boosted, despite a bleak 2018, during which it was consistently scorched by capable quarterbacks.

“Once you have some success, like anything in sports, it’s confidence,” Petrino said. “Once you start getting your confidence, then you trust your technique in key situations.”

Of the Vandals’ 16 takeaways, seven are interceptions. That’s nine more turnovers forced than all of last season.

“They’re just going for the ball, playing hard and enjoying themselves,” linebacker Christian Elliss said of the defensive backs. Elliss, alongside breakout sophomore middle linebacker Tre Walker, has been starring on the strong side and most likely will earn all-conference honors.

Elliss and Walker noted a change in league scenery required some adjusting, and because of that, growing pains. UI’s rush defense ranked 10th last season (230 yards per game) and its total pass defense ninth (225).

“When it came to the Big Sky, it was the air raids, a bunch of screens and a bunch of hurry-up. That was really different,” Elliss said. “As a defense, we grew.”

Added Walker: “It’s a slope. You gotta keep going uphill. Even though we made a leap, just keep improving.”

With a year to adapt, UI’s rushing defense has jumped four spots (160 ypg) and its pass defense six (210). The Vandals are noticeably more adept at reading and reacting to run-pass options and tackling in open space, and coverages in the secondary have only broken down a handful of times.

On that note — just twice did the Vandals allow consistent days from opposing league quarterbacks. Northern Colorado’s Jacob Knipp went 14-of-23 for 250 yards and two scores, and Montana’s Dalton Sneed 17-of-27 for 241 yards and a touchdown. In nonconference play, UI bottled up Sean Chambers, and Eastern Washington’s Eric Barrier was suppressed in the first half.

Everyone else was rattled early by a defensive front that featured one of the league’s elite in Charles Akanno — before he went down with an Achilles injury Oct. 19 against Idaho State. Quarterbacks have struggled to complete 50 percent of their passes or collect 200-plus yards. Last week, Sacramento State star signal caller Kevin Thomson was held to 187 yards and a pick on 47 percent passing.

In most cases, Idaho’s offensive faults — 21 giveaways — have been crippling, leaving the defense tired. But Elliss and Walker lamented their showing in a 41-35 loss to top-five Weber State, during which the Wildcats tallied 227 yards and four rushing scores. Of its conference games, it probably was the defense’s worst showing.

“We didn’t help the offense,” Elliss said. “That really sticks out in my mind. If we would’ve just held off one more touchdown, (Nick Romano’s) kickoff return wouldn’t have been for nothing.”

To bolster the grade in 2020, Crawford wants to see an augmented “play-making personality,” better perimeter tackling and a fine-tuned pass-rush. The Vandals have 14 sacks this year compared to last season’s 18, which included seven from former standout buck linebacker and New Orleans Saints seventh-rounder Kaden Elliss.

Sneed succeeded because he had time. UI only got to him once.

“We should be better getting off blocks. We should be better tackling in space, running to the ball. Just fundamental stuff,” Crawford said. “‘I’m gonna be the guy that’s gonna make the play when the play needs to be made’ — we need to approach this upcoming season with more guys with that mentality.

“We’re good, we’re gonna be all right. It’s just the fact: Can we come together?”

Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.

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