It’s a cliché used by every coach — “We’re going to take the season one game at a time.”
But for Idaho head coach Paul Petrino and his players, the temptation to look past a tough first game against University of Florida and focus on their second opponent University of Louisiana-Monroe, will be hard to resist.
At a glance, UF might seem like the more exciting game of the two, but on Saturday, Sept. 6, a new era of Vandal football begins.
“It’s our first conference game,” Petrino said of ULM. “It’s a team we have worked hard on as a staff all winter and summer … we have a good game plan for them.”
After spending last season as an Independent, Idaho will now enter the Sun Belt Conference as football only members. ULM will be its first conference opponent of the 2014 season. Last year the Warhawks finished 6-6 overall and 4-3 in conference games — ULM is 59-95 in 13 seasons with the Sun Belt.
Hired in 2010, ULM head coach Todd Berry has compiled a record of 23-26. In 2008, he led them to the Independence Bowl, which is still the only bowl game appearance in school history — ULM lost to Ohio University, 45-14.
“They’re a good team and always have been,” Petrino said. “They do a good job, but they did lose their quarterback, and I think that will help us.”
Berry will face the challenge of finding a replacement for 2012 Sun Belt Offensive Player of the year, Kolton Browning. The four-year starter passed for 10,263 yards and 81 touchdowns during his collegiate career.
Senior quarterback Pete Thomas, who transferred from North Carolina State, is the front-runner to take over as the next signal caller. Coming out of high school, the former four-star recruit originally committed to play for Colorado State, but after two years and the 2011 season, Thomas transferred to NCSU. In 30-career games the 6-foot-6 quarterback from El Cajon, Calif., passed for 5,936 yards, 22 touchdowns and 30 interceptions.
Berry has used multiple offensive schemes throughout his time at ULM. In 2012 he implemented a two-quarterback formation into his offense, which resulted in a victory over No. 8 ranked Arkansas. For the most part, though, Berry has played to the strengths of his roster and with the loss of Browning, look for him to adapt.
Even with Browning and a lethal passing attack, the ULM offense was divided pretty evenly last season, with only 82 more passing plays then running. But with a new quarterback, only five starters returning on offense — four of which reside on the offensive line — and a dynamic one-two punch in the backfield with Tyler Cain and Centarius Donald, the run game will surely be the main weapon in the early season.
The Warhawks defense returns nine starters, and five of them play up front in the unique 3-3-5 defensive scheme ULM likes to use. While the front six looks to be the strength, ULM’s secondary isn’t far behind with four returning starters.
Like many college students quickly learn in their first year, being independent is anything but easy. The Vandal football team found that out last season. With no conference affiliation and playing as an independent, Idaho suffered a 1-11 season. Petrino emphasized the importance of winning this game.
“This is definitely a game we need to go play well in and try to win our first conference game in the Sun Belt,” Petrino said.