When Penn State returns to Beaver Stadium on Saturday to open its 2019 season, it will take the field against an FCS opponent for the first time since 2011.
This matchup against Idaho will be the first meeting ever between the two programs, but Idaho is no normal FCS team.
The Vandals come from a state that is more known for its potatoes than its football, but the Idaho program has had a roller-coaster ride the past few seasons making it one of the most interesting programs in college football.
In 2016, Idaho recorded its best season in the history of the program, reaching nine wins for the first time. Idaho started its football program in 1917.
But it did it fighting through adversity the whole time.
On March 1, 2016, the Sun Belt announced it was dropping its two newest members, Idaho and New Mexico State after the 2017 season.
With both programs struggling to be competitive in one of college football’s weakest conferences, the FBS no longer had a spot for Idaho.
The Vandals were lost and everything that coach Paul Petrino, younger brother of Bobby Petrino, had built since taking over in 2013 was at risk of collapsing.
According to a Sports Illustrated article profiling the Idaho program in 2017, when Petrino took over the program in 2013, there were no linebackers on the roster, no running backs on scholarship and the offensive line held team meetings in racquetball courts.
That season Idaho lost by 24 points to Arkansas State and were beaten 80-14 by Jameis Winston and Florida State.
But Idaho put all of the history behind them and played its heart out in 2016. The Vandals recorded their program record ninth victory of the season with a thrilling 61-50 win over Colorado State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
A fitting storybook ending in its home state for a program that won a combined five games from 2011-14.
But this wasn’t the first time Idaho found themselves without a conference.
Idaho was a founding football member of the Sun Belt as the conference added the sport in 2001.
The Vandals left the Sun Belt conference for a more appropriate geographical conference in 2005 as they went to the Western Athletic Conference (WAC).
And this is where Idaho found its home until the WAC stopped sponsoring football after the 2012 season.
And once again Idaho was without a conference.
The 2013 season was one that saw Idaho play as an independent before eventually rejoining the Sun Belt in 2014.
In 2017, the Vandals’ last season in the FBS, they weren’t so successful, only reaching the four-win mark and were unable to make a statement before dropping to the FCS.
The decision to drop to the FCS level by Idaho was the first one since 1982 that didn’t involve the NCAA forcing the move to happen.
The University of Idaho is located in Moscow, Idaho, a small town of around 24,000 people located in the northwest corner of the state was devasted.
But now a few years later, Idaho still has a home in the Big Sky conference, a conference that fits the school geographically and realistically gives the Vandals more of a chance to be competitive.
But last year, its first season in the FCS, Idaho wasn’t very competitive.
The 2016 season was a long distant memory as the Vandals struggled to a 4-7 record including a season ending 63-10 loss on the road in the program’s last action against an FBS team.
Now, Idaho is entering its second season in the FCS and starts its season with a trip to Beaver Stadium, an environment a little different than the Kibbie Dome, Idaho’s home stadium that has a capacity of 16,000 people and more resembles Houlba Hall than Beaver Stadium.
But this doesn’t mean Penn State and James Franklin are taking the Vandals lightly, especially after last season’s opening game against Appalachian State.
“This is going to be, obviously, an important week of prep for us, and then go out and play well on Saturday and build confidence,” Franklin said.
According to Franklin, Idaho will run a very common spread offense, but the Vandals won’t be afraid to pound the ball in short situations.
The stars on the offensive side of the ball for the Vandals are wide receiver duo Jeff Cotton and Cutrell Haywood who combined for 100 receptions and 13 touchdowns last season.
The pair should be able to test Penn State’s relatively young secondary and give them some valuable college football experience.
“I would say the fact their quarterback is able to keep plays alive a lot. He's able to really move outside, and their receivers, they work. They work really hard,” cornerback John Reid said. “They have really good concepts and run routes that allow them to get open. And they have guys with strong hands that are able to make plays.”
On defense, Franklin pointed out defensive tackle Rahsaan Crawford as a player to watch. Crawford had 20 tackles from the interior last season.
Overall, Idaho is meant to be a tune-up game for Penn State and one that was never meant to be challenging.
The Nittany Lions are overwhelming favorites heading into Saturday’s matchup as they should be, but Idaho is a program that is just different than most around the country.