How significant was Idaho’s spring season? Debate away

Idaho coach Paul Petrino argues a call with an official during the Vandals’ eventual loss to Eastern Washington on April 10 at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.

In 4½ short months, it'll begin again. Hopefully, Act 2 of Idaho football’s 2021 is less complicated.

Its precursor season — pushed back and plagued by a pandemic — was, as might have been predicted, anything but straightforward.

In some aspects, it seemed important. In others, it seemed disorderly and negligible.

Its significance, or insignificance, can and will be debated.

Initially, it felt intriguing, a fresh sight for the sport at the opposite end of the calendar year.

UI hadn’t suited up since November 2019. Its standard fall season was shifted to this coming autumn, and the Big Sky scraped together abbreviated slates, February to April, to appease their football-starved participants and adherents.

Win five of six games, and your ticket’s punched to the watered-down FCS playoffs. The Vandals’ prospects looked OK.

After all, nearly half of the Big Sky had decided to sit this one out.

Significant?

It was billed as a late (or early) showcase, stakes and all. On a brighter stage, too — what with the FBS big boys having chugged through their schedules in the fall.

It wouldn’t be a scrimmage-like campaign, essentially used for trial-and-error tinkering and youth development.

A national playoff berth, a winning record? That’d be significant.

So started the analysis:

The Vandals had graduated several offensive starters, and took a mighty hit in their secondary via the transfer portal. But a pair of high-potential quarterbacks were coming in. And while the O-line would be young, the running-back stable was deep, and the receiving corps tested enough.

Plus, the defensive front was as sound as it’d ever been in the past decade.

Finally, it was time for a season. And, fingers crossed, at least a semi-conventional one — thus, more valid.

Not so fast.

Soon, there were snags. At first, not so much for Idaho, which played with a relatively complete roster in a Week 1 defeat of Eastern Washington. The Eagles were head-coachless that day because of COVID-19, and without multiple standouts.

Significant?

From then on, UI’s 2-4 season might be defined as a weekly guessing game. Charting the team's evolution became a futile effort. Realistic expectations were jumbled.

Coach Paul Petrino was always hush-hush on roster developments.

You could imagine the surprise when nine starters were missing from the depth chart during a somehow-close Week 2 loss against UC Davis, then the lack of surprise when UI was forced to take a weeklong pause because of said short-handedness.

The trend of randomized absences was present in some fashion in Games 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Sometimes, the O-line was depleted. At others, deep-reserve wideouts and defensive backs were in the lineup. Occasionally, a handful of assistants vanished. And so on and so forth.

Coronavirus-caused personnel shake-ups were such a central part of the year. It was often hard to keep up.

In the big picture, does it make this season’s results less significant?

At the forefront of the discussion were Idaho’s quarterbacks. For the fans, it went from, “We’ve got a loaded room of signal-callers” to “We’ve got no signal-callers left” pretty quickly.

There was the new, prototypical guy, Mike Beaudry, the UConn transfer expected to close his career as Idaho’s starter. Then, there was a taste of the future snap-taker, CJ Jordan. Then, it was Nikhil Nayar’s turn. He followed a shining, game-winning relief performance with one more typical of a third-stringer.

Various circumstances — injuries, but predominantly coronavirus protocols — had their availability flip-flopping to the finish. Beaudry and Jordan will presumably be in a competition this fall.

Then, there was the quarterback who hadn’t been a quarterback since he was 18, Zach Borisch.

In line with the year’s odd, inconsistent nature: Borisch and the Vandals’ hastily assembled ground-and-pound option scheme produced a more effective offensive outing during a competitive Week 5 loss at EWU than four of UI’s other games.

One of them was its finale in Flagstaff, Ariz., an uninspired, 19-9 deflator against bottom-feeding Northern Arizona.

Beaudry and Borisch platooned for a bit, but Petrino largely ditched the system, citing NAU’s pressure and Beaudry’s 10-for-11 start — that didn’t last. The Vandals’ offense went stagnant in an 84-yard second half.

Another quarterback making his case for reps somewhere. Significant.

Yes, there were Vandal blunders, those customary of any recent, standard season.

There were rays of hope followed by, and overshadowed by, face-palming letdowns. Thrilling, encouraging last-minute victories over EWU and Southern Utah were eventually relegated to the rearview mirror with sluggish losses at Idaho State and NAU.

Some discourse involved the consistent string of secondary mishaps, coaching judgement lapses in winnable games, three straight road losses to cap the year with another missed postseason, a fourth-consecutive losing season and now a 1-10 Big Sky road record.

For morale? Significant.

But at this point, should the bulk of stock not be put into the individual play?

To be sure, there were breakouts as well, and progressions from the familiar faces.

Receiver Hayden Hatten (613 yards on 43 snags in six games) cemented himself as a star for the next three years. Borisch got an opportunity he otherwise might not have. Jordan’s multifaceted showing versus SUU boosted optimism. Idaho’s defensive box exhibited the kind of depth and widespread talent that’ll persist into the fall and beyond.

Indeed, there was trial-and-error tinkering with formations and newcomers. Idaho’s many relied-on youths won’t be so green in their first normal season — particularly on the O-line, where four rookies played considerable minutes.

Moreover, the Vandals sat exceptional linebackers Tre Walker and Christian Elliss against the Lumberjacks, and their replacements hardly missed a beat.

Maybe, experience alone is what makes this spring important in the long run.

Yet complicating things further is the question of who takes that free year of eligibility for the fall. Elliss is pro-bound. Mainstay punter/kicker Cade Coffey has also indicated that his Vandal career is finished.

There may very well be others who’ll depart having not played a final, legitimate season. That seems significant.

As is the fact that a few Vandals opted out of the spring, including Dareon Nash, a Montana transfer and suspected starter at cornerback; and that new center Chad Bagwell and JC-transfer speedster receiver Jermaine Jackson sustained injuries early in Week 1 that kept them mostly sidelined throughout the year.

In 4½ short months, we’ll have a better idea whether this aberrant six-game stretch was fundamentally significant to Idaho football and its future. Until then, debate away.

Clark may be contacted at cclark@lmtribune.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 627-3209.

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