Idaho’s football team feels like it’s finally coming together, regardless of how late it might’ve been and no matter how nicked up it still is.
For the Vandals — who only have the pride of a winning record to play for now — there’s some genuine momentum floating around the locker room ahead of their game at 2 p.m. today against Cal Poly in the Kibbie Dome (Pluto TV).
UI’s playing host to an almost completely ground-based Mustangs team, the exact type of foe Paul Petrino’s Vandals have executed against so far in their recently renewed Big Sky existence.
This roster might be unfamiliar with it, but Petrino ran the option as a Carroll College quarterback in the 1980s, and his father taught the design for decades as the Saints’ coach in Helena, Mont.
“It’s who’s got the bigger pride is the way I’ll say it,” said standout linebacker Christian Elliss, one of UI’s best run-stoppers. “It comes down to who’s gonna give in and who’s gonna hit the hardest.
“I know our front seven can get it done.”
On the other side, the Vandals’ offensive line is following what Petrino called its “best game yet,” a 45-21 homecoming curbing of Idaho State on Oct. 19 during which the trenches — with starting guard Matthew Faupusa healthy again — steadily gave running back Dylan Thigpen space to kill clock, and quarterback Colton Richardson a cleaner pocket than he’d ever seen.
Plus, UI got an extra week to rest and ready up for the peculiar triple option employed by Cal Poly (2-6, 1-4 Big Sky).
With promising redshirt Bryson Lee under center running the scout team, the Vandals (3-5, 1-3) got a sample of a bouncy signal caller who can sling it, precisely what Mustangs freshman quarterback Jalen Hamler is with his seven rushing touchdowns, along with his 955 yards and nine touchdowns on 62.2-percent passing.
“It’s something that’s hard to do in practice at the speed they run it ... it was good for us to have two weeks to prepare for that,” Petrino said of covering Cal Poly’s three-pronged backfield, featuring the league’s rushing leader in fullback Duy Tran-Sampson (757 yards) and the conference’s No. 2 rush-yardage average (235.8). “Even though you have two weeks, you still had to get some of the techniques down (in the offseason).”
Idaho is a nine-point favorite, according to VegasInsider.com. That’s most likely thanks to the Vandals’ significant size advantage up front and their stock of proficient linebackers. The spread also could indicate improvements in UI’s secondary, which, if showing up as it did on Oct. 19, would deprive Cal Poly of its safety net in receiver J.J. Koski.
Koski’s collected the fourth-most yards in the league (684) and five scores. He’s often lobbed to sporadically, when the ground game’s chugging and opposing safeties creep up. But he’s also banked on if the Mustangs get down early, when their already one-dimensional offense is suppressed.
“He could have one catch, or he might have nine catches,” Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh said.
Conversely, the Mustangs’ bottom-tier pass defense (second-worst efficiency) could be an issue against a loaded Idaho receiving corps that boasts Jeff Cotton, who’s tallied a league-best 748 yards. Cotton’s healthy, and when that’s the case, he’s overwhelmed opposing corners, regardless of his quarterback.
It’s another reason for UI to feel confident — Petrino’s playing coy on who’ll take the snaps.
“They’re gonna have to prepare for all three of them,” he said.
Richardson sustained a leg injury against Idaho State, the severity of which is undisclosed. Mason Petrino, who’d missed the previous game-and-a-half with a concussion, is slated on the depth chart as the starter.
Standout freshman running back Aundre Carter returned to practice this week after suffering a leg injury in the second quarter Oct. 5 against Weber State.
“That’ll be good to have all three (running backs), keep ’em fresh,” Paul Petrino said. “There’s been a couple games where (freshman Nick Romano’s) taken a little bit of a pounding, taken a few too many reps.
“We got quite a few that were playing, that were banged up, some rest.”
All-American hopeful linebacker Charles Akanno is out for the year with an Achilles injury. Even so, UI’s defense appears as healthy as it’s been in weeks. So too is the offense.
And the Vandals are at home, where they’ve palpably performed at their best. If they carry forward the gusto, they’ll have bagged consecutive league wins for the first time in three years.
“Momentum’s such an incredible thing to have,” Thigpen said. “We’re not gonna let this go to waste. ... We have to see them as rivals this week.”
FACE TIME — Former standout UI quarterback Matt Linehan, a broadcasting major at Idaho, will provide guest commentary on the Pluto TV broadcast.
Colton Clark may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.