It’d been years since the Vandals met one of those rare triple-option football teams.
Odd. On Saturday at the Kibbie Dome, it looked like what Idaho’s defense knew best.
The Vandals saw Cal Poly’s game and raised it one — they managed the Mustangs’ versatile rushing attack, overpowering and even outgaining them on the ground.
UI’s front seven incessantly jammed the backfield and its big running back showed up Cal Poly’s en route to a smooth 21-9 Big Sky win, its second straight.
“I would no way ever say that going against the option’s easy,” Vandals coach Paul Petrino said. “Our guys just did a great job.
“Probably the biggest thing you gotta do is win one-on-one, and we won one-on-ones.”
Defensively, Idaho’s front needed about a quarter to adjust to the Mustangs’ chaotic backfield and the league’s leading rusher in fullback Duy Tran-Sampson, who they’d keyed in on.
Once he was well-bottled, Cal Poly looked frequently to “pitch-man” Drew Hernandez.
The Vandals (4-5, 2-3 Big Sky) stayed disciplined — in particular, the ends and linebacking corps, whom were heavily banked on to claim those “one-on-ones” at the line of scrimmage.
They did to the tune of 11 tackles for loss, three sacks and 145 rushing yards allowed, 93 fewer than Cal Poly’s top-10 national average. It permitted UI’s slow-starting offense time to get its legs under it.
“It took me a couple snaps to get used to that option,” said linebacker Christian Elliss, a steady backfield presence who had a game-high 13 tackles. “It was different from what I anticipated, not scheme-wise, but just the speed of it.
“If you play lateral, and make (runners) wait, you have your entire defense coming.”
The interior clogged gaps and pursued, and ends Leo Tamba — who had 2½ TFLs in place of injured star Charles Akanno — and Kayode Rufai weren’t enticed to follow run fakes. Elliss, breakout sophomore Tre Walker and Butte College transfer Jalan Jenkins fashioned a flowing wall from sideline to sideline.
“It looked to me like what they were trying to do is get to the pitch,” Petrino said. “Tre coming inside-out to tackle that guy on those pitches, that’s hard, a lot harder than he made it look.”
The Mustangs (2-7, 1-5) took their only lead at 3-0 on a 44-yard field goal after a long-running first drive. Later, Cal Poly assembled lasting possessions, but couldn’t stay on the field when it counted.
The Mustangs also couldn’t get UI bruising freshman running back Aundre Carter off it.
Carter had a career-high 179 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries in his first action since sustaining a leg injury Oct. 5 against Weber State. He ran like he hadn’t missed a beat, freezing and shaking defenders in the box with unexpectedly nimble stutter-steps.
When Carter found a seam, he’d expectedly power past defensive backs’ high tackles — he did so to hand UI a 7-3 lead late in the second quarter on a fourth-and-inches burst that went through Mustang corner Kevin Howell and 37 yards to the end zone.
“Just punishing a dude, it gets the sideline motivated, the O-line motivated, the team,” Carter said.
UI, which won the possession-time battle against a team that seldom loses it, rode quick throws and Carter throughout.
After halftime, Walker got a bead on Hernandez in space to make one of those aforementioned tackles on a fourth-and-5 to cap a promising Cal Poly drive and set up the Vandals’ momentum-sealing series.
Eleven of the 12 plays in the six-minute drive were runs — eight to Carter. For his work, he was given an easy jog-in on a pitch from a yard out, making it 14-3 at 3:53 in the third.
“He’s just big and physical and runs hard, and then he won some one-on-ones,” Petrino said of Carter.
Quarterback Mason Petrino shook off some rust and an early fumble — that he recovered — to manage the clock-killing UI offense suitably in his first start since an injury suffered Oct. 12 at Portland State.
Behind an offensive line playing at its best this season, Petrino went 13-of-22 for 138 yards and a passing touchdown. He sought Cutrell Haywood and Jeff Cotton over the middle and in the flats. They combined for 123 yards.
“Really, a lot of our quick-passing game still dates back to (1982-85 UI coach) Dennis Erickson,” Paul Petrino said.
A 7-yard Mason Petrino scramble outside on fourth-and-6 in the red zone closed the third. Two snaps later, Petrino found Cotton on a crossing route, and Cotton scooted in from 22 yards, untouched.
“It was the biggest play (Mason) made of the day,” UI’s coach said of the fourth-down run.
Cal Poly got its biggest rep without enough time to mount a comeback. Quarterback Jalen Hamler — who went 4-of-12 for 97 yards and was contained in the rushing game — hit standout J.J. Koski on a 55-yard streak that set up a short touchdown run with 2:47 to play.
The Mustangs got one more shot, but Elliss pressured Hamler into making an errant sideline toss toward the outstretched arms of cornerback Lloyd Hightower.
Fitting how a turnover ended it.
“I hope, maybe a team tries (the option) again,” Elliss said.
Clark may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.
Idaho 21, Cal Poly 9
Stars of the game
* Idaho’s entire FRONT SEVEN knew they’d be relied on to bottle and pursue the Mustangs’ three-headed ground game, and they answered the challenge. They totaled 11 tackles for loss and three sacks. Reserve LEONICK TAMBA led all players with 2½ TFLs.
* UI’s OFFENSIVE LINE continued to take strides, allowing one sack and two pressures.
Midway through the third quarter, UI linebacker Tre Walker swooped into the backfield on fourth down, pursuing Cal Poly running back Drew Hernandez, then tossing him roughly to crush a promising Mustangs drive and provide the Vandals’ offense the momentum needed to take an 11-point lead.
On the third quarter’s final snap, Mason Petrino shook off a defender in the backfield and darted left to pick up a first down on fourth-and-6 in Mustang territory. Two plays later, Petrino hit Jeff Cotton over the middle for a 22-yard touchdown, shattering Cal Poly’s comeback designs.
The Vandals (4-5, 2-3 Big Sky) will get more than a rushing attack when they meet No. 8 Montana at noon Saturday in the rowdy confines of Missoula’s Washington-Grizzly Stadium.