Northern Illinois heads out to Idaho Saturday afternoon, looking to go 2-0 for the first time since 2003. I caught up with Troy Warzocha, who covers the Vandals for the Lewiston Tribune, to ask him some quick questions about Idaho, who is in its first season as an independent and has a first-year coach in Paul Petrino.
The following is an edited transcript.
Nitz: The Vandals are currently 0-2 and may very well be in for another down year. However, how excited is everyone around the program, as well as the fan base, just for the fact the Vandals will be heading to the Sun Belt Conference next season after serving as an independent in 2013?
Warzocha: I think more than anything, the fan base and those around the program are relieved. The fact that Idaho had no direction a year ago brought a lot of extra stress to a program that was already on life support. I think that having both the coaching and conference situation sorted out has given Vandal supporters cause for general excitement. As far as week-to-week excitement, there's some, but not too much because everyone is well aware that this thing could take years to turn around.
Nitz: What are the main obstacles to being an independent, even if it is just for one season?
Warzocha: Before the season, the most challenging obstacle was constructing a schedule. Now that the season has begun, the Vandals are going to have to learn to travel well. Starting with this Saturday's game, the Vandals will be on the Palouse until their game at Arkansas State on Oct. 12. After that game, Idaho has a bye and then travels to Ole Miss. The Vandals then play their final two home games of the season back-to-back before heading to Florida State and New Mexico State to close out the season. Those last two games cover quite a distance.
Nitz: What has first-year coach Paul Petrino brought to the program?
Warzocha: Petrino has brought hope back to the program. He has ties with the program going back to the glory days of John L. Smith and Dennis Erickson and traditionally, guys with ties have done well in Moscow.
He also brings an extensive football resume from his days as the offensive coordinator at Illinois, Louisville and Arkansas.
All things considered, perhaps the most important thing he's brought is his zero tolerance attitude regarding academics and discipline. Under former coach Robb Akey, it was widely accepted that many kids weren't going to class and getting in trouble off campus. Case in point, Idaho's single-season Academic Progress Rate for the 2011-12 school year was an abysmal 881, which is far below the national average. Cleaning those things up are just the first steps in rehabilitating the program's image both on the field and in the community.
Nitz: I've never been to Idaho, or Washington. What can myself, and other Huskie fans who head out to the game expect from our drive from Spokane (the nearest airport) down to Moscow?
Warzocha: You can expect a little traffic on the way out of Spokane, but once you get into the heart of the Palouse, there's beautiful rolling hills and plenty of spaced out ranches/farms along the way. It really is a scenic place. To be honest, a lot of it looks like something you'd see on a calendar.
Nitz: The Kibbie Dome is an interesting facility, and one a lot of college football fans have heard of, even if Idaho isn't a marquee program. What's the atmosphere like on game day?
Warzocha: Recently, because of the program's struggles, it hasn't been nearly as raucous as it could be. I imagine that considering the circumstances, the Kibbie Dome will be pretty close to full and it will be very loud. Additionally, the forecast is calling for 90-plus-degree temperatures, and in that dome, it can get mighty stuffy.
Nitz: NIU opened as a 27-point favorite. What do the Vandals have to do to stay in this game? Do you care to make a prediction?
Warzocha: This week, coach Petrino said that the Vandals would pretty much have to play perfect to get a win. Unfortunately for them, they are still very far from perfect. While there have been modest improvements over the course of the last two weeks, I don't see them hanging with the Huskies. I think Idaho will feed off the crowd's energy and start strong, but the Huskies will pull away in the second half for a 42-17 win.
- Steve Nitz, firstname.lastname@example.org, @SNitz_DDC