Idaho cornerback Lloyd Hightower admitted it: Last year, the “back-and-forths” between the Vandals’ defense and offense were few and far between.

Then, it was the O with the gaudy numbers, flashy highlights and blaring end-zone celebrations.

Although the players and coaches wouldn’t concede the winner of UI scrimmage No. 1, the eye test painted it — a newly deep, speed-minded, swarming defense often warded off the offense Saturday at the Kibbie Dome. Its rotations wearied the O-line; its secondary held quarterbacks to around 50 percent, and its box obstructed potential chunk ground gainers.

“The biggest difference in our defense is that we have depth, and we have a lot of it,” said Hightower, who logged a pair of pass break-ups, one on the 1-yard line. “If someone goes down, there’s a person that can play right behind. Basically, at every position.”

Two groups on both sides of the ball — each reasonably composed of a mish-mash of starters and reserves — battled it out for approximately 150 snaps, half of those in short yardage.

Most of all, the exercise was defined by third-down stops, line-of-scrimmage blockages and a hit-and-miss offense, which saw its runners take some hits.

“Oh yeah, the defense got way better, so we gotta expect more,” standout receiver Cutrell Haywood said.

Where the offense succeeded, however, was with its skill stars, particularly receiver Jeff Cotton, who finished his secondary-shedding day unofficially with nine grabs for about 170 yards and four scores.

“I thought the offense made some big plays,” UI coach Paul Petrino said. “We need to be able to catch Jeff and tackle him. He’s the one guy they can’t tackle.”

Added wide receivers coach Tony Spencer: “Jeff is a workhorse, (who) only knows one speed. Pretty much goes 100 mph every play and finishes.”

But the amount of 10-plus-yard rushes could be counted on one hand, plus maybe a finger or two. Missed tackles at the second level were a rarity, and it’s unlikely any back got close to 100 yards.

Out of the five running backs primarily used, big-bodied Roshaun Johnson made defenders miss the most, keeping plays afloat with churning legs and never letting an arm tackle down him. Freshman Kiahn Martinez scored a pair of touchdowns, showing a lane-reading, scat-back-like shiftiness.

“It was nice to see the defense fly around and play with excitement. … You can see a lot more spirit and guys getting after it,” said Petrino. “There were some (plays), especially in short yardage, that our backs gotta run through people and get first downs.”

All-Big-Sky linebacker Christian Elliss — now at SAM after a year-long stint at MIKE — said it comes from a change in mentality: The defense is more communicative and louder. Plus, longer and stronger. He lauded the six-deep defensive trenches, and noted a renewed sense of effort, a lack of which ensued in too many red-zone touchdowns yielded last year.

On three occasions, UI’s defense held on third-and-goal situations, a short-yardage trend Petrino said his offense needs to shed. Twice, the O-line was plugged up at the outset, and Hightower’s deflection ceased the other series.

And that was without defensive tackles Noah Elliss and brand-new JC transfer (Santa Rosa) Jonah Kim on the field. Both stand over 6-foot-3, and each weighs 350 pounds. The two stood on the sideline — Elliss is dealing with a foot ache, and Kim only arrived on scene Thursday.

“It always goes back and forth during a scrimmage, but I’m especially proud of our defense, our linebackers, our front seven, our DBs — we won the day personally, for our side,” said Elliss, whose older brother, Kaden, made his NFL debut Friday with New Orleans’ ones. “It’s just our guys going balls to the wall, shooting after it, going going.”

Play of the day

Quarterback Mason Petrino was rushed and forced to scramble backwards, outside of the pocket. His only option was to attempt a long throw to his right, out of bounds.

Petrino heaved it off his back foot toward the sideline. No one was there, until Elliss popped into frame, flying full-speed toward the sideline.

Initially, it didn’t look like he’d make it — the ball floated high — but Elliss leapt with a couple of yards of room, and snagged a pick with his fingertips, then tapped one toe inbounds with less than an inch to spare. It sent the defensive sideline into a frenzy, as it was wont to do Saturday.

“The coaches have been emphasizing effort. … It was just a really great play, and it was good on the D-line to get pressure,” Elliss said. “I love to be able to cover people and get interceptions.

“And hit.”

What’s up behind center

Paul Petrino and QBs coach Charley Molnar both acknowledged that senior signal-caller Mason Petrino, from Pullman, has a leg up on junior Lewiston High product Colton Richardson.

The reasons being? Petrino has added mobility and more experience. On a shortened field, Petrino — unofficially — went 18-of-32 for about 240 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. He added a couple of touchdowns on the ground, but rushes were hard to gauge considering the no-hit policy with quarterbacks.

Richardson took considerably fewer reps, and ended at 10-of-18 for approximately 90 yards. Since his arm is the strongest by far, he tried deeper throws, but couldn’t really find much 20-plus yards downfield.

Molnar said the disparity in playing time owes to the fact that Petrino’s ahead in the competition, but “there’s plenty of time” to decide a starter, he said.

Paul Petrino plans on naming a QB by the time UI’s Sept. 21 matchup with Eastern Washington rolls around.

Richardson, who weighs 285 pounds — up eight since spring — is on a training regimen, Molnar said.

“At this point for Colton, the lighter he is, the better he’s gonna be,” Molnar said. “He had a couple of 3-yard runs that could’ve been 4-, 5-yard runs if he loses a little baggage.”

Freshman Nikhil Nayar, who’s behind both, threw 8-of-13 for about 70 yards and two short touchdown passes, one to Haywood on a crossing route, and a similar one to “Bulldog” Sean McCormick, as Spencer has called him.

Overall, none of the three was outright superior. Much of the yardage came after the catch, but Petrino did make the day’s two best throws — an accurate, 30-yard ball for a touchdown to Jeff Cotton, who nabbed it on the far sideline after getting behind the coverage on a go-route; and a well-placed floater for a first down to Jante Boston on the sideline.

No. 3

When the wide receivers are at their best, “the team is at its best,” said Cotton, offering up a talking point that his is the team’s top position group.

But behind him and Haywood — approximately six catches, 50 yards and a TD — the question remains: Who’s No. 3?

Right now, the two say it’s Boston, a wily onetime DB in his fifth year with the program. Spencer said he’s eager to watch the position battle unfold between Boston and sophomore DJ Lee.

But “we kinda do that by committee,” he said.

Slot speedster Mike Noil, four-time wrestling state champ Sean McCormick, frosh Daseau Puffer and Pullman’s Jed Byers have earned time with the first team.

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