MOSCOW — Portland State’s Davis Alexander is what the Idaho football staff calls a “plaster” quarterback.
Alexander, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound junior, continues to improve, and where he really succeeds is when plays break down. He’s the Vikings’ No. 2 rusher — 250 yards and two scores on 57 carries — but he also holds the Big Sky Conference’s second-best passer efficiency rating (153.4), and much of his 1,387 yards and 12 touchdowns (against three picks) have come on the run.
That’s where “plastering” comes in. In coverage, regardless of man or zone, Idaho’s defenders have been stressed to recognize a quarterback on the move by calling out “plaster.” Then, they latch on to the nearest receiver.
“Last year, we knew (Alexander) was gonna run around and make plays throwing it, so we focused on plastering it,” Vandals senior cornerback Lloyd Hightower said. “We have our scout team quarterback rolling out, trying to scramble. Receivers do whatever when the QB’s rolling out; they’re just trying to get open.”
Broken offensive plays have resulted in copious broken coverages for UI in the recent past. But in a 20-7 win last season against Portland State, the Vandals’ secondary plastered well, providing their front seven time to feast. Alexander went 12-of-21 for 133 yards — he didn’t have many options on the run, and took a beating in the backfield.
But he’s not the same Vikings quarterback as a year ago. “He’s seeing things so much better,” UI coach Paul Petrino said, and his receiving corps boasts five players with more than 200 yards receiving apiece.
The Vandals (2-4, 0-2 Big Sky) haven’t seen this kind of stable of receivers in Football Championship Subdivision play yet this season, and they haven’t seen a target like Charlie Taumoepeau, a 6-3, 245-pound All-American tight end who oftentimes splits out.
“When you got somebody with all the intangibles that can get up, get it, and has speed, you just gotta match it,” said linebacker Tre Walker, the Big Sky’s leading tackler with 69.
It’ll be a test in discipline for a UI team that has cost itself games with flags — it leads the league in total penalty yardage (522) and penalty yardage per game (87). A chunk of that is because of pass interference calls on deep balls.
If the Vandals cannot figure out their situation at safety, they could be in a bind. As of now, both posts are shallow.
“(We’ll) maybe have a couple of guys move around and learn that position also,” Petrino said.
Starting free safety Davontae Ginwright missed Tuesday’s practice for undisclosed reasons, and Mujeeb Rufai is battling an unspecified injury. UI shifted freshman corner David Eppinger to the back, and rotated freshman Jaxon Woodward with the first unit, alongside starter Tyrese Dedmon.
“(Eppinger) looked a lot more comfortable at safety than he did at corner,” the seldom-tested Hightower said. “He played corner in high school, but today, he was out there making crazy plays, interceptions. He seems to fit.”
COMBATING THE FLEX — Portland State’s defensive box employs a rarely-seen scheme — it mimics the “Desert Swarm” defense of the early 1990s Arizona teams under Dick Tomey, which was a flex.
It’s a five-man front — beefy on the inside, lengthy outside — with a rover, a stand-up linebacker-type who shifts sporadically from pass-rush to coverage.
“You just don’t see it a lot,” said offensive coordinator Kris Cinkovich, referencing Portland State’s three defensive tackles, each of whom shade an offensive lineman. “Because you haven’t really worked against it, that makes this game-week preparation really important to get a good look.”
Added Petrino: “Their strength on defense is their D-line. They try to take away the run.” They use disguises, so the defensive box rarely differs from a previous rep.
The Vikings (3-3, 1-1), who’ve steadily improved since losing to UI in September 2018, boast the conference’s No. 2 rushing defense (100 yards per game). Yet, they have played two Division II opponents.
UI’s rushing offense sits fourth in the league at 181 yards per game, but its two big-bodied, relied-upon backs in Aundre Carter and Roshaun Johnson are rehabbing injuries. Breakout freshman Nick Romano and junior Dylan Thigpen have been splitting time, and nimble freshman Kiahn Martinez provides a change of pace as a scat-back.
“(Thigpen) was in here a week ago asking all the coaches what he could do to get on the field,” Cinkovich said. “By simply busting your (expletive), opportunity will come. His opportunity came, and he stepped up to it.”
Thigpen logged career touchdown No. 1 in his first action since suffering a devastating knee injury in spring 2018, after which he was told by doctors his chances of playing again were uncertain.
Fortunately for the Vandals, first-team center Conner Vrba and quick guard Matthew Faupusa have returned from injuries. Vrba was eased back in Saturday, and had 56 snaps against No. 4 Weber State in a 41-35 loss. Faupusa participated in drills Tuesday, but still is questionable.
QUICK HITS — Petrino recognizes that UI’s safety net is gone — if it wants to vie for the playoffs, it can’t afford a loss Saturday at Portland State (2 p.m., Pluto TV 532). “Backs are against the wall a little bit. … We gotta go,” he said. “Can’t have a letdown. Gotta make sure we’re ready to play (like last week) for sure.” ... Portland State has been known to use gadget plays. Walker said UI’s been honing in on its special teams after allowing a fake-punt first-down run and a 30-yard fake-punt touchdown run against Weber State. Hightower said he expects the Vikings to attempt some trickery. ... Receiver Jeff Cotton is “day-to-day” after a leg injury suffered against Weber State.
Clark may be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.