Here are what I think will be the five keys going into Saturday's game. The one I left out was the kicking game. Other than that, read away....
1) Quarterback play: Jeff Fleming will take on Nathan Enderle on Saturday under center.
For Fleming, it will be his first game as a starting quarterback on the Division-I level. What can we expect? Tough to tell, and that’s part of the problem.
Enderle, on the other hand, is a gunslinger, someone who threw 20 touchdowns last year, to go along with 17 interceptions. The junior’s numbers could be somewhat deceiving — many of them came with Idaho down big and forced to chuck it early and often.
Each teams’ passing game will likely make plays. The key will be protecting the football. Fleming or Enderle, who will make the crucial play, or big mistake? That’s the million-dollar question.
2) Aggie defensive tackles vs. Mike Iupati: This matchup is the epitome of football — a defensive tackle and an offensive guard meet up, likely won’t touch the ball, but could very well dictate whether their team wins or loses the contest.
NMSU’s unit is headlined by E.J. Cannon (6-foot, 292 pounds), who showed athleticism and quickness during fall camp on the defensive line. He, alone, could be a game-changer on the interior of the defense throughout the course of the year.
The senior and his fellow tackles will get a stiff challenge Saturday, however, in Iupati, who’s built like a condominium (6-foot-6, 330 pounds) yet moves like a gazelle.
NMSU’s Cannon, John Finau and Vincent Federico will be asked to penetrate into the opposing backfield but, perhaps more importantly, will also be required to tie up Iupati along the line of scrimmage. If Idaho’s All-WAC guard can beat them off the ball and block the second tier of the Aggie defense — the linebackers — the Idaho running backs will have room to roam. If the Aggies can bog Iupati down, the Vandals’ running game will be grounded, and their ability to move the football will be harnessed.
3) Aggie pass rush: The easiest way to get a quarterback flustered? Bring the heat. And the Aggie defensive line applying pressure on Enderle could cause a pick or two going the other way.
The big holdup is Idaho’s offensive line, which is big and brimming with potential. The left side of the unit, which is highlighted by guard Mike Iupati (6-foot-6, 330 pounds), also features tackle Matt Cleveland, who at 6-foot-4, 314 pounds isn’t exactly small. The center is Irvin Stevens III (6-foot-3, 277 pounds), while the right side is anchored by guard Adam Juratovac (6-foot-3, 306 pounds) and tackle Bryce Sinclair (6-foot-5, 322 pounds).
The Aggie defensive linemen are inexperienced, yet quick and athletic, particularly ends Donte Savage and Kawika Shook. Size isn’t everything. Skill will ultimately be the deciding factor in this war in the trenches.
4) Marcus Anderson vs. Isaac Butts: The Aggies playmaker on offense? It’s still Anderson, who had a big year in 2008 and looks for an encore in 2009.
Small, yet fast, Anderson has the ability to beat his man deep. Once he has the ball, he has a knack for finding the endzone, as witnessed by his nine TDs last year, on just 50 receptions.
Butts, on the other hand, is a senior and an experienced player for the Vandals. Make no mistake though, this is a defense that has struggled in the past stopping the big play. It just so happens, that’s Anderson’s bread and butter.
5) Defensive turnaround: Both of these teams need to play better on the defensive side of the ball in 2009.
The Aggies seem primed for a turnaround under DeWayne Walker, who’s made a living over the years at scheming on that particular side of the ball. Leaders of the unit include senior linebackers Jason Scott, Ross Conner, cornerbacks Davon House and Chris Buckner and tackle E.J. Cannon. Will this go from the team’s main weakness the last handful of years to an area of strength? Time will tell.
As for Idaho, the Vandals can score points. Stopping the opposition remains a bone of contention. Back is senior leader Shiloh Keo, a safety who missed all of last season due to injury. He will team with safety Jeromy Jones and cornerback Isaac Butts to give Idaho an experienced defensive backfield.
The question for the Vandals will be, how will they hold up along the front-seven? We’ll find out Saturday.