Vandals seek out ‘golden nuggets’

Penn State wide receiver K.J. Hamler (1) looks to elude Idaho linebacker Tre Walker (8) during the first quarter Saturday in State College, Pa.

When unpackaging his team’s 79-7 loss Saturday at Penn State, Idaho football coach Paul Petrino tends to see it as a learning experience rather than throwing the film out the window completely, although no one would judge him for taking the latter route.

He looks for the “golden nuggets,” as the Vandals’ staff has come to call reps where an individual is sound in his technique, and makes a play on a national stage.

He sorts through all this muck: 1-for-15 on third down; five total first downs; 145 total yards (4 rushing); almost 700 yards allowed; an offensive line that was bludgeoned from the start; and 10 penalties, the first and last statistics Petrino was most displeased with.

What Petrino and Co. come out with are pointers. A Power Five rout might benefit the Vandals if they don’t dwell on the final score, which was UI’s second-worst loss (by point differential) in history.

“You have to learn from it, then forget about it,” said guard Noah Johnson, who was the only consistent offensive lineman Saturday. “On one play, my technique was terrible ... he beat me around the edge. When I did the technique right, I stunned him right at the line.

“There were a lot of those plays that we can learn from, and some where I saw myself playing against those guys at their level.”

Petrino can live with a player simply getting overpowered by a higher-caliber opponent, as long as he was sound in his fundamentals. He’s seeking out individual fine-tuning.

“A lot of plays, just one guy got beat or two guys got beat, so that’s better than all 11 getting beat,” he said. “That’s something we can build on.”

Of note was the performance of middle linebacker Tre Walker, who was consistently flowing toward the ball in an eight-tackle day, including two for loss.

“I look at it as a learning point, look at the whole situation and realize I’ll get better,” Walker said. “It’s about the competitiveness. I see who was competing, even when we were down 70 points. Try to find out where our hearts are and not dwell on the situation. Just get better from it.”

Petrino liked what he saw in the first quarter from his defense, which he acknowledged was put into tough situations by UI’s punting toils and an offense that was time and again backed up against its goal line.

The box, in particular, managed to stifle Penn State a few times early, and held the Nittany Lions to a 1-for-8 mark on third downs. The front seven stuffed Penn State twice in first-quarter red-zone situations, forcing a pair of field goals.

“In the first half, the defense played tough,” Petrino said. “(Rahsaan Crawford) and Noah Elliss played good up front. Got a little worn down in the second half.”

Like most position coaches on Sunday, defensive line coach Luther Elliss pointed out a couple of reps from each player in his group — one good and one not so much. The first was productive.

“‘Look, you did the technique right on this play, and you won,’” said freshman Coleman Johnson, recalling Elliss’ words.

Then, the opposite.

“‘There’s no technique there, and look what happened,’” Johnson said. “He did a good job showing us, ‘Yeah, they’re Penn State, but you’re capable of playing at that level. No matter who it is, if you don’t use technique, they’ll beat you.’”

Offensively, receiver Jeff Cotton wasn’t browbeaten. He had six catches for 83 yards, 38 of those coming when he shook off a first-team corner. Additionally, Petrino commended quarterbacks Colton Richardson and Mason Petrino for checking against pressure, and he noted a few fourth-quarter reps. There was not much else to be said about the offense — it didn’t have a first down until midway through the second quarter, and didn’t score until a few minutes had passed in the fourth, when the walk-ons were in.

“That (PSU D-line) betters us in a way, just getting used to them,” said running back Aundre Carter, who Petrino played most because of Carter’s previous week of practice. “What we did wrong or right, that’ll help us. It’s just a game for the future.”

On special teams, two freshmen found nuggets — UI cornerback David Eppinger recovered a muffed punt and receiver Sean McCormick got a finger on one.

So there are takeaways technique-wise, and from an effort standpoint, but Petrino said Tuesday the game “should’ve been behind us yesterday.”

“Probably the biggest thing coming out of something like that is character,” he said. “If you’ve got good character, you’re gonna work your tail off.”

SHORT HOPS — Petrino said the five-man running back competition still IS wide open. … A handful of players were missing from practice, including Charles Akanno and Cutrell Haywood. Petrino said they’re day-to-day.

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

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