With so many twists and turns of momentum — so many flags thrown, early defensive stands and later, offensive fireworks — who could’ve guessed a punter would make the real difference?

Late in the third quarter, as Idaho’s football team was doing just enough to keep No. 4 Weber State at arm’s reach, the Wildcats were facing a fourth down in the red zone.

Instead of taking the easy points, Weber dialed up a fake field goal. Punter Doug Lloyd, acting as a holder, scooped the ball off the turf and scurried left, through a wide lane.

He went untouched for a 30-yard touchdown, pushing the lead back to 13. It proved insurmountable as the Vandals fell 41-35 to Weber State Saturday at the Kibbie Dome in the teams’ first meeting since 1995, a game of catch-up in front of a sparse assembly of 5,974 onlookers.

“Frustrating, and a fake punt,” said UI coach Paul Petrino, referencing Lloyd’s 11-yard run to spark a scoring possession on the previous series. “Both of ’em, those are bad. It’s hard to win games when you do things like that.”

Also committing 12 penalties for 114 yards, and when your quarterback fumbles three times and the opponent recovers all of them.

But Idaho (2-4, 0-2 Big Sky) kept pace until the bitter end. It piled up more than 400 yards of offense and scored more points than the upper-echelon Football Championship Subdivision Weber State defense had permitted since its 2018 season opener at Utah.

“We were challenging ourselves to play with that kind of toughness,” Petrino said. “If that’s the No. 4 team in the country, then we’re not that far off from being a darn good football team.”

UI shrugged off a sluggish start and fought through its own mishaps to keep it tight, even after losing star receiver Jeff Cotton to a leg injury midway through the second, then having starting running back Aundre Carter go down after a momentum-turning, tackle-busting 46-yard run on the next drive, which began when Tre Walker tipped a ball into the hands of safety Davontae Ginwright.

On 10 rushes, Carter had 89 yards and the Vandals’ first touchdown, two plays after Cotton left the field.

Mason Petrino finished Carter’s work, floating one to Cutrell Haywood, who soared above his coverage for UI’s lone passing touchdown from 2 yards away to make it 14-13 Vandals — a short-lived lead and their only one. With Cotton sidelined, Haywood accumulated career-highs of 10 catches and 92 yards.

“Football’s a physical sport and guys go down. Other guys just stepped up,” Paul Petrino said. “Guys kept fighting, our O-line, everyone just kept fighting.”

As the clock waned, the Vandals had one final chance. Their defense bottled up three runs by the Wildcats and forced a punt. UI’s offense, which became more methodical as the game wore on, went 66 yards in eight plays to close it to 34-28 on a 1-yard Mason Petrino run with 3:19 remaining and one timeout.

An ensuing onside attempt failed, and curiously, Weber State punched in another score to push the advantage back to 13 with a minute left.

The Wildcats weren’t out of the woods. Nick Romano found a seam and bolted down the sideline for a 97-yard touchdown — UI’s first kick-return score in seven years. After another failed onside kick, it was finally, officially over.

“(We) had the mentality that we still had a chance if we take this one back,” said Romano, who logged 62 yards rushing on 14 attempts.

The Wildcats (3-2, 1-0) pounced early, scoring on a 54-yard run by Josh Davis, then promptly stripping the ball from a scrambling Mason Petrino.

Two possessions later, Mason Petrino was blindsided, and fumbled again.

“Gotta have a clock in your head,” Paul Petrino said.

UI’s defense, led by another uncontainable outing from buck linebacker Charles Akanno, only surrendered a pair of field goals.

Akanno had four tackles for loss and a fourth-quarter fumble recovery in Weber State territory, which was squandered when UI’s drive fizzled on fourth down.

“The defense hung in there and kept the score not too out of hand,” Paul Petrino said. “In the second half, (the offense) just had a better feel.”

As did Weber’s. The Wildcats began to wear down the Idaho front in the ground game (262 yards), and capitalized at the start of the third with Lloyd’s fake-punt run, then proceeded on a 10-play, 75-yard drive capped by a nifty 10-yard score by Kevin Smith.

Then came Mason Petrino’s third lost fumble — his hand was tipped as he threw, and the officials ruled that he’d lost possession before propelling the ball forward.

Mason Petrino went 24-of-35 for 212 yards and a touchdown with a limited stable of pass-catchers. Weber’s Jake Constantine, who often succumbed to pressure, was 20-of-36 for 163 yards, a touchdown and a pick.

The running backs, too, were limited. Dylan Thigpen got his first action of the year, and on his first series, bounded in on a shifty 20-yard touchdown, inching UI closer, to 27-21.

But the punter dropped the hammer.

“You could go Wyoming, Northern Colorado and today — we were two plays away in any one of ’em,” Paul Petrino said. “We gotta start making those two plays.”

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

Weber State 41, Idaho 35

Stars of the game

Weber State punter DOUG LLOYD booted one 58 yards, but it wasn’t his foot that made the difference — it was his legs. Lloyd revived Weber’s first drive in the third quarter with an 11-yard fake-punt run. The Wildcats eventually scored to go up 13. Two series later, with his team up 6, Lloyd was called on and delivered again. This time, it was a 30-yard scoring run on a fake field goal.

Vandals linebackers CHARLES AKANNO, CHRISTIAN ELLISS and TRE WALKER “all have to play out of their minds” every week for Idaho to have a chance, Paul Petrino said. Yet again, they were the UI standouts, combining for 32 tackles, seven for loss and a fumble recovery. The trio was key in keeping it tight early, and providing a slow-starting offense time to regroup.

Idaho receiver CUTRELL HAYWOOD took over as Mason Petrino’s target No. 1 when star Jeff Cotton went down midway through the second quarter. Haywood, who consistently bested man coverage, had career-highs in catches (10) and yards (92), and skied above Weber cornerback Eddie Heckard for Idaho’s only passing score.

Up next

Idaho (2-4, 0-2 Big Sky) faces league also-ran Portland State at 2 p.m. Saturday at Hillsboro Stadium.

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