Two seasons removed from its fall out of the Football Bowl Subdivision, Idaho’s football team hasn’t met any of its Big Sky Conference goals.
The Vandals — who finished 5-7 overall and 3-5 in the league this year — haven’t yet come close to reigniting that swell of prosperity they’d enjoyed throughout the 1980s and ’90s, when they procured a handful of conference titles before departing for the relevance the FBS carries with it.
Although slightly improved, UI hasn’t even been able to regain pertinence in a conference it was a founding member of, with a coach that’s one of the classification’s highest-paid.
Before the season, seventh-year boss Paul Petrino said the aim was to reach the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs a year after finishing ninth in the Big Sky.
The Vandals, who ended sixth this year, were practically eliminated from contention in Week 7, when they fell to 2-5 overall and 0-3 in the league with arguably their worst loss of the year, a 24-0 skunking at Portland State in which UI’s offense was deflated with injuries and got smothered, suffering its first shutout since 2013.
Injuries were a bane, particularly those that sidelined star buck linebacker Charles Akanno for the season; and all-star senior receiver Jeff Cotton, breakout freshman running back Aundre Carter, and a fraction of offensive linemen for extended spurts.
With shallow trenches, UI permitted a league-high 35 sacks. Carter (615 yards rushing, 113 carries, 7 TDs) missed three full games, and full halves of two others. His early-season co-starter, Roshaun Johnson, sat the entire second half of the year with an apparent shoulder injury.
Freshman Nick Romano and junior Dylan Thigpen — who missed all of 2018 with a knee injury — shouldered the load, but to less effect than the two bruisers earlier in 2019.
“The games where we ran the ball really well is when we played the best,” said Petrino, who’s posted losing records in six of seven years. “We went out there and executed on both sides.”
Idaho’s offense, also plagued by series-killing penalties and 22 turnovers (second in the Big Sky), plainly relied on Cotton, one of the country’s best pass-catchers who amassed 1,141 yards on a league-high 88 receptions. His 8.8 catches per game were the most in the FCS and his 114.1 yards per game were No. 2.
Cotton missed two games, and two other halves, all losses. He was the uncontainable wind in UI’s sails, and when sidelined, the Vandals’ offense was marooned. Defenses sold out on the run and played man coverage.
In fact, Idaho might’ve contended for a postseason spot if it weren’t for offensive transgressions in a few early games.
UI squandered a two-score second-half edge at cellar-dwelling Northern Colorado on Sept. 28, and when it was gifted a chance at a game-winning possession, Petrino and senior quarterback Mason Petrino committed consecutive unsportsmanlike penalties in scoring position, basically ending it.
Unsportsmanlike conduct was unnaturally frequent in 2019.
Two weeks before, UI failed to score the clincher in Wyoming’s red zone at the end of the game. The Vandals saw their drive stall with a questionable offensive pass interference call and a sack allowed.
Idaho had plainly outplayed the now-7-5 FBS Cowboys — its defense allowed only three explosive plays.
“It came down to two plays — a big punt return we gave ’em and a 70-yard rush we also gave ’em,” defensive tackle Rahsaan Crawford said. “It’s easy to say they’re out of our league or they had better players. When you look at that game, we could’ve won it. It was us who lost it.”
It was just one of four times the Vandals dropped winnable games because of a lackluster offense that finished ninth in the league in passing and seventh in rushing. That number of games isn’t counting UI’s historically bad offensive output (194 yards) in a 31-7 loss to sixth-ranked Sacramento State.
On Oct. 5, Idaho trotted out perhaps its best offensive game of the year against No. 4 Weber State, which consistently boasts one of the top FCS defenses.
But thanks to three lost fumbles by Mason Petrino and two Wildcat conversions on special-teams trick plays — one a 30-yard fake-field-goal run for a touchdown — UI’s last-minute 97-yard Romano kick-return score was all for naught.
It provided a small example of inconsistency issues plaguing the Vandals throughout the year.
Linebacker Christian Elliss noted the defense fine tuned, adjusting to its new league and its hurry-up tendencies. It underperformed in only two league outings, and made considerable jumps to the Big Sky’s No. 3 pass defense and top five in rushing (conference play).
“Our mindset has to be hurry-up,” said Elliss, a first-team all-leaguer. “It’s been a good improvement from last year. We’re playing a lot better with tempo.”
Because UI’s secondary repeatedly was gashed over the top in 2018, defensive coordinator Mike Breske often employed a nickel package. In conference play, Idaho and its bolstered backfield finished first in pass-defense efficiency while playing with depth issues at safety.
Preseason starters Davontae Ginwright and Satchel Escalante left early in the year because of injury and transfer, respectively.
“They’re a whole different unit, a whole different mindset back there,” said all-conference linebacker Tre Walker of the new-look DBs, which were aided greatly by former safety Jalen Hoover’s move to corner and Utah State transfer corner Christian Nash.
It was an upgrade, despite UI allowing 53 points against Northern Arizona and 42 against Montana — most of those in Missoula were surrendered on short fields because of turnovers. In Flagstaff, a wild, Mason Petrino-led 60-point outburst made up for the head-scratching defensive breakdowns.
In all, UI lagged in the kicking game (9-of-16 on field goals), with its league-high penalty count (104 for 940 yards), a hit-and-miss pass rush (21 sacks, eighth in the league), a conservative offense and its numerous, untimely giveaways (many post-intermission).
It prospered in rare gusts of unison, when the O-line and skill players were hearty, and when the defensive front pressured opposing signal-callers into mishaps.
UI’s most notable successes were its 35-27 overpowering of battered Eastern Washington on Sept. 21 and its two-sided dominance of Idaho State, 45-21 on Oct. 19, in which backup quarterback Colton Richardson went off (17-of-25, 289 yards, 3 TDs) before hurting his ankle in the third quarter. His defense scored three times.
But those traits weren’t upheld all season. UI improved, albeit marginally and not enough to earn a playoff spot, like four other Big Sky teams did, and like the Vandals were expected to when they were booted from the Sun Belt after 2017.
Paul Petrino, though, has maintained Idaho isn’t far off after back-to-back three-win Big Sky seasons.
“It’s a step away,” he said. “You watch the whole Weber game, you watch the first half against Montana, you watch some of the games we won — we’re right there.”
Colton Clark may be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.