For a football program like Idaho’s — one where constant success is far from routine — it’s not so often that victory still leaves a sour taste in the collective mouth of its onlookers.

That is, for the few who were even there, at that sparsely populated Kibbie Dome on Saturday night. I reckon only 5,000 or so folks showed up, and less stayed to catch the end of the Vandals’ 41-31 slip-by of a “win.”

Or, sour on the tongues of those who knew Central Washington was a Division II team, and didn’t mistake it for a different directional Washington school. You know, that one the Vandals should actually be contending with in a tit-for-tat bout like this.

But hey, remember last year? Central competed with Eastern Washington for a full half. Fast forward — the Vandals vied with the Wildcats for a full game.... Oh man, that’s bound to bode well when No. 4 EWU comes to town in two weeks.

As for now, UI’s probably just glad it didn’t become the seventh FCS team of the weekend to be upended by a gang from the D-II ranks. It’s probably glad it didn’t become the first UI team to drop a game to a D-II opponent since 1989, when No. 3 Portland State — yes, the Viks were D-II then — topped the Vandals 29-20.

It was proud of its third-down defense (3-of-14), Jeff Cotton’s career day (145 yards on 16 grabs, the second-most in UI single-game history) and the 29 extra snaps it had on CWU. It was proud to have controlled the pace, largely on the ground, where it had 280 yards.

The latter tidbit being foreseen, considering UI’s presumed physical supremacy.

“We tough wins out, and that’s how it was,” said quarterback Mason Petrino.

Basically, UI was proud to win a scuffle of attrition over a team with 27 fewer scholarships, a first-year coach, a 5-foot-11 quarterback who’d never played a down, a raw defensive front and three O-linemen who’d never started.

Granted, at least CWU is a back-to-back league champ and will inevitably be a ranked D-II troupe at some point this season.

“We got better as the game went on,” coach Paul Petrino said. “We expected it to be a hard-fought, tough game.”

Still, there’s no excuse for the Vandals’ sometimes debilitating sloppiness and sporadic disarray. There were six flags, three fumbles, blown coverages — particularly on two receiver-pass trick play TDs — and Wildcat runners outspeeding UI on the edge. There was inside pressure, which crowded the face of Mason Petrino. He needed to have one of his best games as a Vandal to put CWU away.

There were snippets of all those traits that’d prompted a 4-7 campaign.

Oddly, despite the warranted criticism surrounding the QB spot, it was Mason (and the defender-dragging backfield) who stayed poised, kept plays afloat and sparked the offense to its fair share of methodical drives late to answer Wildcat scores.

Can we agree at this point that a platoon isn't the answer? Just name Mason the starter already; it’s been expected for a while now. In fact, the two-man QB rotation seemed to give Central some life owing to a pair of suppressed possessions.

Colton Richardson didn’t look at all comfortable being thrust into play in the second quarter. He missed a couple of throws badly, and when he tried to force one, he got picked. Just like that, CWU’s confidence had bloomed, and it’d taken a one-score lead over the span of a couple of minutes.

“I’m not gonna say (the QB competition) is done,” Paul Petrino said. “Colton’s gonna play next week, too.”

I digress. Let’s not forget that UI again toiled with its self-inflicted wounds and with its long-running trend of forcing an often-muddled defense to protect a short field.

On paper, the Vandals appear to have handled business. On the eyes, as per their custom, they made it closer than it could’ve been, squandering an auspicious start and fueling CWU’s zest.

Let’s remember how Idaho’s box needed several final-frame stops, including one with four minutes left — up three — to hold on. And don’t forget that it wasn’t officially out of reach until Aundre Carter rumbled in from 27 yards out at the 1:35 mark.

On Saturday, I overheard someone precisely label the game as follows: It’s hard to count it as a win, it was more so the Vandals narrowly escaping the shame of an upset.

Although, even with a win and those padded numbers, it was still upsetting, yet not altogether unanticipated.

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

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