Once more, the Vandals opened their season with an offensive trick play. Once more, their much, much superior opponent did not bite like the Idaho reserves did every time it was practiced.
Last year at Fresno State, it was a mishandled flea flicker. Colton Richardson barely avoided a turnover, scooped it up and launched it out of bounds.
This time, at Penn State, it was a fake quarterback draw — Mason Petrino took it in shotgun, jostled forward a few steps, then lofted one idly over the middle, in the direction of his freshman running back.
But unlike those trickery reps on a clear field at Moscow’s SprinTurf, the Nittany Lions weren’t fooled like a UI redshirt.
Poor Nick Romano almost had his head taken clean off on his first collegiate snap.
Eerily similar flops, just like the opening showings for Vandal football in Big Sky reintroduction years No. 1 and 2 were overall. Let’s tally it up: In consecutive Week 1s, UI allowed 79 points apiece. I can’t imagine that’s ever been done before.
Both bad, but really, they were uniquely bad.
I suppose of most importance is that the Vandals’ needy athletic department got paid ($1.45 million) instead of simply reciprocating a home-and-home deal. That could be our sole takeaway.
Last year, the eventual Mountain West champ deflated UI with a 79-13 Dog-pounding right out of the chutes. Fresno, aided by a short field — like PSU — relentlessly poured it on its former WAC foe until the fourth.
In hindsight, I think that humiliation stuck with the Vandals throughout the year.
This time, the No. 15 team in the country put in far less effort, and won by more. The Lions’ 79-7 dismantling of UI on Saturday was nearly the weekend’s worst rout, if it weren’t for Maryland’s 79-0 nuking of Howard. At least there were no blocked-field-goal touchdowns, I guess.
But PSU didn’t need any football oddities. It just played man-on-man, flung some and ran some — mostly up the gut. There wasn’t anything aberrant.
First-year starting quarterback Sean Clifford could sit back, stand still, retie his cleats, then close his eyes like MJ at the free-throw line and toss one up. It’d fall ever so kindly into the arms of a receiver who’d stroll right on past the new-look coverage.
And any of the 1,000 Lions running backs who touched the ball could generally get by with a cut — the defense would flow to the wrong side.
When the inevitable PSU redshirts entered, and the UI starters remained, the Nittany Lions tried to slow it down. They just accidentally kept scoring, much to the ire of coach Paul Petrino.
"First-half-wise, defense did some good things," he said. "I didn't like how they finished the game."
On the flip side, there certainly wasn’t any way to discern refinements in the offense with a bunch of potential All-American PSU front-seven players hounding the line of scrimmage, or already swarming the backfield while the ball was still in limbo between center and quarterback.
“We put (the defense) in some tough situations,” Petrino said.
It was brutal. A dreadfully hard-to-watch tilt that amounted to Idaho’s second-most lopsided (point differential) loss of all time — behind a 77-3 defeat at Houston in 1968.
Only for one reason did it not end up first: a bounce.
Vandal punter Cade Coffey was zinging low liners all day, presumably in hopes of causing a turnover. With about 10 minutes left, it finally worked. UI jumped on a muffed punt and got its best field position by far, then at last scored.
Like that Fresno game, you might just throw this one out the window. I mean, c’mon, it’s Penn State. These are ranked FBS teams. How’s UI supposed to vie with that?
A blowout was expected, albeit one with a little more competitiveness than three defensive stands. Or a rout where PSU didn’t score its most points in 28 years.
Look at the performances of other Big Sky teams. Portland State almost beat Arkansas and Weber State held San Diego State to six points, but UI only logged three first downs before the fourth. If it makes you feel better, Eastern Washington was torn apart by Washington.
But what transpired after last year’s game? UI struggled for a half against an ultimately winless Division II team, and now it’s got one of D-II’s best in Central Washington coming to town for what the Vandals hope to be a tune-up of their own.
We don’t know what kind of mental toll a blitzkrieg like this can take, no matter how memorable the 105,000-fan environment was.
Chalk it up to being outmanned by a New Year’s Six-caliber team and forget about it. Or, take last year’s defining loss into account, and be skeptical based on what happened/didn’t happen. Either route is fair.
It’d also be fair to point out a positive or two: The Vandals’ defensive box did look improved (in the first quarter) in relation to last season’s opener. It made a few third-down stops, and linebackers Tre Walker and Charles Akanno were flying to the ball. And on offense, Jeff Cotton managed to get open a few times.
“If you’re a competitor, you should be mad,” Petrino said. “Some guys can look in the mirror and know they played their tails off.
“Overall, we expected to play a lot better than we did.”
Sounds sort of familiar.