Idaho football notebook: Vandals trying to stay positive

Freshman running back Nick Romano rushes against Northern Colorado during a Saturday game in Greeley, Colo.

In a 27-24 upset loss to Big Sky bottom feeder Northern Colorado on Saturday, Idaho’s football team amassed 18 offensive plays of 11-plus-yard gains.

“And no passion was shown on any of ’em,” said coach Paul Petrino during his weekly news conference Tuesday.

The seventh-year boss faulted himself. The Vandals lacked “fire,” that zeal and discipline they’d shown the previous two weeks in a narrow loss to Wyoming and a defeat of Eastern Washington.

For Idaho (2-3, 0-1 Big Sky), it’s back to the drawing board in preparation for its 2 p.m. game Saturday at the Kibbie Dome with Weber State, the fifth-ranked team in the Football Championship Subdivision (SWX, Pluto TV). It’s a game UI can’t overlook, like it did the Bears.

“I just felt like we thought we were expected to win, so we kinda jumped out to that (14-point, 24-10) lead and didn’t wanna pounce, and finish the game,” said running back Nick Romano, who had a breakout day with 132 yards on 15 rushes.

After one of the worst outings of his tenure, Petrino said he’s pushing positivity, particularly early in the week.

“Just reach back and find a little bit of that magic that we really played against Wyoming and Eastern with,” Petrino said. “Those two games, we played with great passion and great energy, and fire, and I don’t know if we just didn’t do it for three weeks in a row.

“Took the week off; now it’s time to have it back.”

The question is: How does UI revert to that early competence, and not again fully break down after halftime?

Rushing reliance

The Vandals went for 270 yards on the ground against the Bears, but the majority of that came before the midway point of the third quarter, when the momentum began to swing.

Instead, the Vandals put their money on quarterback Mason Petrino’s arm, but the passing game morphed from moderate to their undoing in the span of a couple of minutes, when the younger Petrino became flustered.

UI had averaged about seven yards per carry on the shoulders of Mason Petrino and Romano, a true freshman from Meridian.

Paul Petrino said it was the enhanced play of UNC’s interior big men, Jean Desir and Eddie Gonzales, that forced a change. They began to wear down the Vandals’ semi-battered offensive line, although it mostly was comprised of personnel that’d worn EWU down the week before.

“We had to change up what we were doing running the ball-wise,” Petrino said, admitting the Bears’ rushing defense adjusted efficiently, and started to fill gaps. “Their two inside guys, we really couldn’t knock ’em off the ball.”

Petrino’s hopeful that the return of center/guard Conner Vrba will spark something. Vrba practiced Tuesday. Quick guard Matthew Faupusa did not practice, and hasn’t since suffering a leg injury in the second half against Eastern.

It’ll likely again be the tandem of bruiser Aundre Carter and Romano getting the bulk of carries because Roshaun Johnson has been rehabbing an apparent leg injury. But Petrino noted speedy freshman Kiahn Martinez has been shaking off a tweaked ankle, and could be primed to emerge.

Perhaps without Johnson, UI’s rushing attack will need all the help it can get to fare as it did when it surprised Wyoming, bruised Central Washington and fatigued EWU.

Weber State owns one of the country’s premier defenses, which Petrino said prides itself on the front seven. The Wildcats’ vaunted defense held Mountain West opponents San Diego State and Nevada to six and 19 points, respectively, but Weber State’s offense faltered in the losses.

“Still ran the ball for 270 yards, but we didn’t run it the way we ran it the first couple of games,” Petrino said. “The biggest thing you gotta do is block (Weber’s) front.”

Getting off the field

UI only forced UNC — the 111th-ranked team in the nation on offense — to punt twice, and it only sacked Bears quarterback Jacob Knipp twice. Otherwise, he had a clean pocket to step into.

“Gotta put more pressure on the quarterback,” Petrino said. “Didn’t do a good job at that last week.”

With defensive line starters Kayode Rufai (end) and 350-pound Noah Elliss (tackle) fully participating at practice Tuesday, the Vandals are hoping to make amends, especially considering Weber State (2-2) boasts two running backs who’ve combined for about 400 yards.

To augment its defensive front, UI has Christian Elliss intermittently lining up as an edge rusher.

“I’m still trying to learn from (Kaden Elliss) and my dad (defensive line coach Luther Elliss),” Christian Elliss said. “I think God gifted me that way, where I can learn and I can learn fast, and I can get to the quarterback. Luckily, I have Kaden and my dad to help me.”

In the secondary, the Vandals were flagged three times for pass interference on third downs. But Petrino liked his defensive backs’ positioning. He just thinks the young group needs to mature some.

Jalen Hoover has become a nice complement to Lloyd Hightower’s stable play — the former safety made two crucial pass break-ups, one to force a missed field goal in the second quarter, the next to get UI off the field on fourth down early in the fourth.

But in all, the UI secondary blew six coverages resulting in pass completions for big gains, two of them going for long scores, and UNC held possession for a minute longer than Idaho thanks to UNC receivers breaking free on scramble drills.

Weber’s Rashid Shaheed has been keyed on — he’s arguably the Big Sky’s fastest player, and aside from his adept kick-returning and sweep-run abilities, he’s been known to score on 60- to 70-yard post routes.

“He can really fly,” Petrino said.

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

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