Idaho and the Montana connection

Pete Caster/For the Daily NewsIdaho head coach Paul Petrino gives some encouragement to an offensive lineman during a scrimmage Aug. 8 in Moscow. Petrino and the Vandals play against the University of Montana today and the coach and many of his staff have ties to the state.

MISSOULA, Mont. — It’d be a tall task to find anyone who wants to silence the Montana football team as much as Idaho does — UI coach Paul Petrino, in particular.

It’s born from familiarity.

Petrino’s a Helena-raised former Carroll College quarterback who was recruited by the Grizzlies out of high school. His wife, Maya, attended the school, and his daughter, Anne Mari, is a senior outfielder on the UM softball team.

“I spend a lot of time there,” Petrino said.

Five other UI staffers have Big Sky State ties. Cornerbacks coach Vernon Smith played at UM (2000-04) and defensive coordinator Mike Breske served two stints — in the early-2000s and early-2010s — in the same position. Breske was on the Griz’s 2001 national championship staff.

“These coaches at Idaho know what the heck they’re doing,” said UM coach Bobby Hauck, who’s in his second season back at the helm after eight years away. He guided the Grizzlies to seven consecutive Big Sky titles from 2003-09, but last year, toiled with turnovers and inexperience on the way to 6-5.

Petrino was a receivers coach for the Vandals from 1992-94, a span in which UI couldn’t quite keep up with Montana’s incendiary offense, led by stalwart quarterback Dave Dickenson.

“There were some high-scoring shootouts,” Petrino said.

It didn’t seem to matter that UI had Walter Payton Award winner Doug Nussmeier tossing it around — in his second year back in the Big Sky, a win against the Griz has continued to elude the seventh-year UI coach.

Petrino, sporting a grin, said he’s got some tricks up his sleeve.

“We’ve worked on a lot of stuff (for Montana) that’s totally different from a lot of stuff we’ve shown all year,” he said.

Idaho looks to snap a five-game losing streak against the Griz and collect its first Little Brown Stein win since 1999 at noon today, when it faces an unruly crowd of 25,000 and another fiery Montana offense at Washington-Grizzly Stadium (Root Sports).

The Vandals (4-5, 2-3 Big Sky), who haven’t won a road game since 2017, were sliced apart by the Grizzlies (7-2, 4-1) in Idaho’s Football Championship Subdivision re-inauguration season last year. UM quarterback Dalton Sneed ran wild, the Griz’s skill players had constant space and their defense swarmed incessantly during a 46-27 rout at the Kibbie Dome.

Now UI, a 17-point underdog according to 5Dimes.com, is back here for the first time in 16 years, and like in earlier outings this season, it’s revenge-minded.

“(They’ll) have chills running down their backs,” Petrino said of his team playing at the league’s largest venue. “It was the same with Eastern (Washington) and (Idaho State). They have a better feel for what the rivalry is now then they probably did last year on the first go-round.”

UI has been unexpectedly impressive when matched up against local foes who’d “embarrassed us last year,” Petrino recently said. The Vandals spent extra time in the offseason scheming against their three regional opponents.

“We know that they spent time on us in spring ball and fall camp,” Hauck said. “So, they’ll be well prepared.”

Sixth-ranked Montana restricted its previous two opponents, EWU and Portland State, in the second halves, and had backup quarterback Cam Humphrey — a junior — play commendably in place of Sneed, whose injured ankle could keep him out of this game.

Petrino said Humphrey is less prone to running it as Sneed is, and he anticipates Humphrey to test UI’s deep pass coverage plenty if the Vandals’ defensive front can’t dial up persistent pressure. Rushing-wise, UM’s Marcus Knight has made considerable strides, and is the league’s best with 13 rushing touchdown.

But Idaho’s defense has put together its best two-game run since rejoining the league, registering 19 tackles for loss and five turnovers combined in breeze-by wins against Idaho State and Cal Poly.

“We gotta get our hands on (their receivers). Gotta be physical with them and not let them just run free,” Petrino said. “They’re gonna throw deep; they like to throw deep.”

The same can’t be said for the Vandals, who’ll likely rely on clock-draining stratagems, with senior quarterback Mason Petrino under center and the legs of standout back Aundre Carter heavily employed to keep Idaho’s defenders fresh.

Carter is averaging 5.8 yards per carry behind an offensive line that’s allowed just two sacks and bulldozed for 401 rushing yards in the previous two games.

Montana’s run defense, led by a three-man front and some powerful linebackers, is a conference elite.

Petrino pounded home the notion the line of scrimmage will control the game’s outcome.

“Same as last year — they’re stout players,” said center Logan Floyd of UM. “But so are we. ... I feel like we’ve all recovered; we’ve all gotten healthy, and so, we’re growing now.

“There’s just a little chip on our shoulder for this game.”

NOTE — Idaho owns the all-time series edge 55-28-2. The first time the teams met was in 1903, making this the second-oldest rivalry in the league behind the Brawl of the Wild, between the Montana schools.

Colton Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.

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