Idaho football coach Paul Petrino knows how historically daunting Montana’s defensive backfield has been, and he knows this season’s Grizzlies enjoy perhaps the finest of the Big Sky Conference’s receiving corps.
But he’s certain that most games, especially this one, are won in the trenches, where outside observers aren’t always looking.
“Whatever O-line plays the best and whatever D-line plays the best — that’ll probably be the team that wins,” Petrino said Tuesday as he has many times before.
Perfect timing. The Vandals (4-5, 2-3 Big Sky) have been hard to ignore in those respects during this two-game league winning streak they’re on.
In not so many words, Petrino acknowledged the defensive front is playing its best ball of the year.
In its 45-21 win Oct. 19 against Idaho State and its 21-9 containing of Cal Poly on Saturday, UI has registered 19 tackles for loss. For the most part in those contests, its front seven subdued the Big Sky’s two leading rushers, ISU’s Ty Flanagan and the Mustangs’ Duy Tran-Sampson.
Four Vandal box players sit in the league’s top 15 in the stat. Still standing first in solo TFLs is buck linebacker Charles Akanno, who had 12 before suffering a season-ending Achilles injury against the Bengals.
His replacement, Leo Tamba, is 14th. In limited action, he’s been in on 7½ TFLs, 4½ in his previous two outings alone.
“Obviously, this season’s for Chuck now,” Tamba said.
The stocky, 6-foot-1, 236-pound junior Saddleback College transfer plays eerily similar to Akanno.
“More than anything, I’ve learned from (Akanno),” Tamba said. “I just try to emulate his game and incorporate my own game into it.
“With Chuck, he’s real free. You can just see he’s relaxed. ... So the No. 1 thing I tried to do against ISU, and to the rest of the season, is just relax.”
UI’s defensive front has settled into its rotation, and have compiled 19 sacks — two shy of its 2018 total. Tackle Rahsaan Crawford continues to be a steadying presence, and his interior compatriot, 350-pound juco transfer Jonah Kim, has developed more quickly than anticipated into a formidable gap-plugger. Tackle Noah Elliss has missed extended periods for unspecified reasons.
“I think we just have a better sense of trust,” Tamba said.
Tamba and Boise State transfer Kayode Rufai didn’t let much in Cal Poly’s triple option get past them.
“They changed the game,” Christian Elliss said Saturday. “They did a great job wreaking havoc and just destroying people.”
Linebackers Elliss and Tre Walker — who fare best near the line of scrimmage — are in the top 10 in tackles in the Big Sky, and practically are shoe-ins for all-conference honors.
Petrino’s banking on the group to quell Montana’s much-improved rushing attack (170 yards per game) and furnish a “clock” in the head of whichever quarterback starts — it could be Dalton Sneed, one of the league’s best, or Cam Humphrey, who doesn’t mind slinging it.
Sneed hasn’t played since injuring his ankle in an Oct. 19 loss at Sacramento State. Regardless of his status, the Griz (7-2, 4-1), who put up 474 yards per game, will look for shots. The Bengals did too, but their signal caller largely was under duress.
“They’re gonna run the ball, then throw play action, and when they throw play action, they throw deep,” Petrino said. “If we let them sit back there and have all day to throw, that’s not gonna be good for us.”
Any football aficionado knows a defense is only at its best when it’s fresh. Keeping it rested has been Petrino’s intent all year, and it’s easier now with electric 235-pound bully Aundre Carter back after being shelved for almost a month with a leg injury.
Carter, who’s averaging 5.8 yards per attempt, had 179 yards on 23 carries against Cal Poly. The Vandals sat on the ball longer than the Mustangs, who’d won the possession battle 5-of-8 times before.
“That’s the best defense you can have,” Petrino said. “Usually, when you see a team that’s playing really good defense, they’re running the ball well.”
Carter’s up to 557 yards and seven touchdowns for UI’s sixth-ranked rushing game (174.1 ypg). With quarterback Colton Richardson and his big arm most likely sidelined again, the Vandals will expectedly ride Mason Petrino’s clock-eating, game-manager tactics.
Of course, the load falls on Carter, who the Vandals swiped after a heated recruiting battle with South Alabama two years ago.
“He helps you as a play-caller, because when a lot of backs get 2 yards, he gets 5; when they get 4, he gets 8,” Paul Petrino said. “He just keeps you in front of the chains and helps keep the ball out of the other team’s hands.”
Carter had the good fortune of returning to an offensive line that’s also playing at its high-point. UI has allowed two sacks in its last two games, but will have its hands full against a “big-pressure” Montana defense that’s third in rushing yards allowed, and has tallied 21 sacks.
“I think we’re really close to our peak,” center Logan Floyd said. “Just in time too.”
Colton Clark may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.