Idaho faces difficult test in Nebraska

A winning season has done little to make people believe in Idaho, outside those who live in Moscow.

There is little reason to have faith, after all. The Vandals have not posted consecutive winning seasons since 1998-99, and have only been to two bowl games in the program’s history.

That second bowl appearance, of course, came last season, when Idaho became one of the biggest surprise teams in the country. The Vandals finished the season 8-5 after a win over Bowling Green in a thrilling Humanitarian Bowl.

Now they understand they have to prove they can win consistently. A big test looms Saturday on the road at No. 6 Nebraska. Coach Robb Akey has already stressed to his team that it must play loose and not get uptight in such a hostile environment.

“If we go into it feeling that way, it’s like a golfer trying to putt with his hands around his throat,” Akey said. “I broke the news to the guys -- I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings but nobody’s going to pick us to win this game this week. So there’s no way we can go in there and screw it up.

“What we need to do is take the next step forward. Let’s pay attention to us. If we go in there and play as fast as we can, as hard as we can, if we execute things better, if we give ourselves an opportunity, we’ll see what the score [is] at the end of the ball game.”

The score has not read particularly well for Idaho in road nonconference games against teams from automatic qualifying conferences. Last year, the Vandals lost at Washington 42-23. In 2008, they lost 70-0 in the opener at Arizona. When asked what he could learn from those two games, Akey said he had erased the game against the Wildcats from his memory. He added the Washington game helped his team “because we felt like we missed out on an opportunity.”

One of the biggest reasons Idaho improved last season was the play of 6-foot-5, 227-pound quarterback Nathan Enderle. In his first two seasons at Idaho, he threw a total of 30 touchdowns, 35 interceptions and completed less than half of his passes. But last season, he threw for 2,906 yards, 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Completion percentage -- 62 percent.

His improvement has him rated as one of Mel Kiper’s top senior quarterback prospects for the NFL draft.

“I’m the type of player, I have to understand the game in and out and understand the defense,” said Enderle, going into his fourth year as the starter. “I was so much more comfortable last season. Playing this long, I’ve seen a lot of defenses. It allows me to really understand what’s going on, and helped me play quicker.”

The Nebraska game has special meaning for Enderle, who grew up in North Platte, Neb., as a Cornhuskers fan. Nebraska didn’t recruit him, so he ended up going to Idaho. He will have family and friends in the stands, and tried to downplay the significance of the game. It wasn’t lost on Akey, who said to him earlier in the week, “I don't have to worry about you wigging out on this game, do I?”

One of the biggest keys to watch is how the Idaho offensive line protects Enderle. With four new starters, they gave up four sacks in the opener against North Dakota. It’s safe to say the offensive line will be going against a slightly better defensive front in Nebraska.

The development of the line will continue to be a story to watch as the season goes on and Idaho tries prove it can win consistently.

“We didn’t have any success my first years here and it was really easy to get down in the dumps,” Enderle said. “For the guys who’ve been here for so long and dealt with three different coaching staffs and all the hardships, to have that many wins, it was really good for everybody on the team.

“I know a lot of people thought last year we might be a flash in the pan, and they don’t really expect us to have the same type of success. But as a team, learning that type of winning mentality, we have higher expectations for ourselves.”