In Idaho football’s long-term search for a No. 1 running back, not much ground had been given in the lead-up to its home opener.
For obvious reasons, there wasn’t much ground gained two weeks back at Penn State. On Saturday — in opposite circumstances, against Division II Central Washington — almost too many yards were amassed between two players to set one apart.
But maybe that’s the intention.
Primarily between bruiser backs Aundre Carter and Roshaun Johnson, the Vandals logged their most yards rushing in a single game in five years. Carter had 123 yards with two scores on 17 carries and Johnson racked up 111 yards and a touchdown on 18 attempts.
Before that, there hadn’t been two Vandal backs with more than 100 yards apiece in the same game since 2004, when Jayson Bird and Rolly Lumbala combined for 259 in an Oct. 16 win against Louisiana-Lafayette.
“They’re like an Elijhaa Penny, Isaiah Saunders,” said coach Paul Petrino, referencing two of the Vandals’ top runners in recent memory, the former a utility man for the New York Giants. “They’re that type of downhill, physical, hit people, fall forward, run through people, get two or three extra yards each time.
“They’re the big backs we’ve always liked to have.”
It’s a competition Petrino maintains is between five players. Junior Dylan Thigpen still is “missing a little” in his balance after suffering a nasty leg injury in spring 2018.
“I still haven’t seen him in practice where I feel like he’s (clicked) close to 100 percent,” Petrino said. “Still has unbelievable vision, makes great cuts. Don’t wanna put him out there until I see that balance in practice.”
There’s also speedy freshmen Nick Romano and Kiahn Martinez, but with the two 230-plus-pounders rotating — Carter early, Johnson to close — the Vandals’ offense accomplished a goal Petrino touched on in postgame.
That’d be UI’s desire to gradually wear down opponents, be them D-II or Big Sky. Although, the Vandals’ approach to do so is the question. Would they prefer a smashmouth or breakneck identity, and which would be most effective in the league?
For Johnson, a sophomore who played in high school in Arizona, and Florida-born freshman Carter, the game against the Wildcats was a breakout punctuated by mass, albeit against lower competition.
Johnson about doubled his career rushing total and Carter scored career touchdowns No. 1 and 2. It was noticeably the hardest and quickest either has run in a live-tackle situation, and each shed at least five tacklers.
“Me and Dre, we both seemed like we got in the flow, got in the mindset where we weren’t going to be stopped,” Johnson said.
When asked to unpackage that “mindset,” Johnson’s mind went right to “the blocking, definitely.”
Carter concurred, passing off much of the credit to an offensive line that progressively gassed Central Washington’s defensive front, propelling the duo to an average of 6.5 yards per rush and offsetting the Vandals’ continuous gaffes that permitted CWU to hang close.
Ahead of UI’s upcoming game at Wyoming (2 p.m. PDT Saturday, ESPN3), Petrino applauded the trenches’ run game, but made no promises on backfield personnel.
“Each week, practice hard, keep the competition, see who practices hardest and best,” he said. “That’s how they’ll start in order. Whoever’s hot in the game, we’ll go with them.”
The Cowboys, one of the surprise teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision thus far, “play heavy on the run game,” Carter said. With that in mind, this could be a more effective gauge of the backs than in weeks past, even with the Vandals being heavy underdogs.
Clark may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.