Around the Big Sky

Despite Idaho’s early struggles, Big Sky happy to have Vandals back

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To the man, every head football coach in the Big Sky Conference offered positive reactions to the Idaho Vandals rejoining the league after 22 seasons grasping for relevancy in the highest level of Division I football.

While the 12 men all offered warm welcomes to the returning charter member of the league, it’s hard to imagine any of the head coaches were excited for the return of UI because of what has transpired the first half of this season.

Weber State fifth-year head coach Jay Hill, whose team shared the league title with Southern Utah in 2017, said he thought the return of the Vandals “makes the league better because they are a dang good football team” during the Big Sky Kickoff media conference in Spokane in July.

Southern Utah third-year head coach Demario Warren said “I’d expect them to be in the top two or three in the league if not win the whole thing Year 1” and “they will be tough because they have almost an entire roster of FBS players.”

Jerome Souers, the don of Big Sky coaches as he navigates his 21st season leading Northern Arizona, echoed Warren’s sentiments, saying, “They have been recruiting under the FBS moniker right up until the switch. I’m not sure some of their players don’t think they are still in the FBS.”

Tim Walsh, the head coach at Portland State from 1993 until 2006 and at Cal Poly since 2009, is familiar with the Vandals’ presence in the Northwest. He said he “loves it” that Idaho is back in the Big Sky before adding, “I really don’t like the fact that they are playing in the league with probably 50 guys who were recruited to go to FBS bowl games. That’s a little different beast.

“I think they will have an immediate impact on what is going to happen in this conference but I don’t think they are going to find it as easy as they may think, either.”

Idaho State quarterback Tanner Gueller (4) vs Idaho in 2018/by ISU Athletics

Five games into navigating their first FCS schedule since 1995, the Vandals have experienced exactly what Walsh predicted: nothing has been easy. Idaho enters Saturday’s game at Montana State coming off a 62-28 loss to in-state rival Idaho State in Pocatello in which the visitors gave up 754 yards of total offense. ISU senior Tanner Gueller earned FCS National and Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week honors by throwing for 492 yards and eight touchdowns, both school records.

“They went up and down the field at will,” Idaho head coach Paul Petrino said following the loss. “We got our butt kicked, bottom line. They were a better team than us. They played better, coached better, were better than us today.

“We have to find the guys who will play the very hardest they can play.”

To hear an Idaho head coach say that about a Bengals team that has occupied the bottom tier of the Big Sky standings for most of the last two decades. In the 22 years since the Vandals left the league, Idaho State has won more than four games just five times, posting winning records in 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2014 but also winning two games or less nine times in that span.

“They did not have their competitive edge in Pocatello,” Montana State Jeff Choate said on Monday as his team comes off a bye with a Saturday homecoming matchup with the Vandals upcoming. “They gave up a ton of yards and a bunch of explosive plays to a very good outfit.

Idaho wide receiver Jeff Cotton (88)/by University of Idaho Athletics

“There’s really no blue print for what they’ve done. Nobody had ever done what they are doing right now which is coming back down a level. A lot of teams have bumped up where you are kind of in that transitional mode where you are getting from 63 to 85 scholarships. Well, I don’t even know what those conversations are like.”

 

Idaho enters Saturday’s renewal of a rivalry in Bozeman with one win in Big Sky Conference play. UI defeated Portland State 20-7 in Moscow two weeks ago. Montana State’s lone Big Sky win came in Portland, 43-23 over the Vikings the final weekend of September.

UI is 2-3 overall, the only other win a 56-10 win over Division II Western New Mexico in which Idaho scored 28 points in the final 12 minutes of the game. Idaho’s season opened with a 79-13 loss at Fresno State. UI’s first Big Sky game was a lopsided 44-21 loss at No. 21 UC Davis. Then came last week.

Idaho is giving up 40.4 points per game. The Vandals forced their first turnover last week but have turned the ball over 12 times in five games. UI’s -11 turnover margin ranks dead last among 123 FCS teams so far this season.

Coming into the season, many expected Idaho to compete right away. The league’s coaches picked Idaho fourth in the preseason poll while the Big Sky’s affiliated media picked UI fifth. Skeptics wondered if Idaho’s players would be less than enthused by returning to the second tier of Division I football. Petrino baulked at that notion.

Idaho head coach Paul Petrino/by University of Idaho Athletics

“We have a group of kids that has played a lot of football for us so this is a year we were looking forward to anyway but going into a new league, setting the standard of how we play football and letting people know what we are all about, getting on that field and finding we are a physical, tough football team, that’s important for us this year,” Petrino said at the Big Sky Kickoff.

“We are not going to have either underestimation of the Big Sky or a lackadaisical attitude. We have good enough leadership that won’t happen. Our older guys are really excited. They have worked every bit as hard this summer as any summer we went in to.”

It’s impossible to tell if the Vandals have underestimated anyone or if the talent in the Big Sky, particularly at UC Davis and Idaho State, has suddenly risen. The skill talent in Idaho’s new league is almost certainly superior to its old league, particularly when it comes to the quarterback talent of players like Davis gunslinger Jake Maier and Gueller, a savvy four-year starter at ISU. Or when it comes to wide receivers like UC Davis phenom Keelan Doss, the top NFL prospect and a potential Top 100 selection in next spring’s draft.

“Apparently, I’ve heard it’s supposed to be a lot of offense,” Idaho senior running back Isaiah Saunders said at the Big Sky Kickoff. “I don’t really watch offensive film like that but everybody keeps telling me this is a lot of offense, a lot of points, a very explosive league. In the past, our offense has scored a lot of points so we are trying to get back to that this year and should fit right into the league.”

During four years competing in the Sun Belt Conference — a league that includes former FCS powers Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina — Idaho won 13 league games and 18 games overall. Half of those wins came in 2016. That season, Idaho began with a 20-17 win over Montana State in Moscow in the season-opener for both team on the way to a 9-4 mark that included a 6-2 record in Sun Belt play and a 61-50 victory over Colorado State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise.

Idaho running back Isaiah Saunders (21)/by University of Idaho Athletics

Many of this year’s Idaho seniors were key contributors on that bowl team, including Kaden Elliss, an outside linebacker so productive the last two seasons, he earned preseason All-Big Sky honors this summer despite never playing a snap in the league.

“At first, the news we were going to the FCS was disappointing because we enjoyed our time in the FBS and we all signed with Idaho to play in the FBS,” said Elliss, the son of Idaho defensive line coach Luther Elliss, a two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman during his nine-year NFL career spent mostly with the Detroit Lions. “But this is exciting. It’s just going to be so fun to play these teams that are nearby, these teams that are historical rivals.”

A collection of key contributors returned from Idaho’s bowl team last season, including fourth-year starting quarterback Matt Linehan. But the son of former Idaho quarterback and current Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan got hurt midway through the year. Sophomore Mason Petrino, Paul Petrino’s son, took over before getting hurt, forcing Idaho to start true freshman Colton Richardson during a 4-8 finish in UI’s FBS finale.

“Last year was a wakeup call,” Saunders said. “We won the bowl game and everyone thought we were untouchable even though we had four losses. Going into the next season, it just felt wrong. Everything just felt like everyone thought we couldn’t be beat and that wasn’t the case at all and it showed during the season, especially in the beginning. We lost a lot of close games which we should’ve won.”

In 2017, Idaho lost at Western Michigan 37-28, fell 21-16 to Louisiana-Lafayette, 23-20 to Appalachian State, 24-21 at Troy, 13-7 to Coastal Carolina, and 17-10 at New Mexico State. Idaho’s Sun Belt wins included a 29-23 win in double overtime at South Alabama and 31-23 to Louisiana-Monroe in Moscow.

Idaho tight end Connor Whitney (12)/by University of Idaho Athletics

This season, the losses have been much more lopsided, coming by an average of 41 points. Idaho had defeated Idaho State 11 of 12 times dating back to 1988 before last weekend’s Bengal blowout.

Despite the result, no one expects the physical and talented Vandals to become a doormat. When in rhythm, Idaho has shown a productive run game predicated on power, an above offensive line for the Big Sky and excellent defensive speed at all three levels.

The opinion of Idaho’s return to the Big Sky is basically unanimous even if UI is struggling halfway through the first season back. The Vandals’ rivalry renewal will continue Saturday with their first game in Bozeman since October 7, 1995. UI plays at rival Eastern Washington on October 27 before hosting Montana for the first Battle for the Little Brown Stein since 2003 on November 10.

“I love it,” Idaho State second-year head coach Rob Phenicie, Montana’s offensive coordinator in 2003 the last time UM and UI played, said at the Big Sky Kickoff. “I tell everyone that if you have a state U versus a U for a rivalry, just like the Cats and the Griz, it’s a cool deal. They belong in the Big Sky. Historically, they are a Big Sky team. I don’t want that to be taken out of context that I think they are crummy and should move down. No, they just belong in this conference with Montana, Montana State, Eastern Washington, Weber State, Idaho State, the old, traditional Big Sky. It’s really cool to have them back.”

Photos courtesy of University of Idaho Athletics. All Rights Reserved. 

Kibbie Dome at University of Idaho/by University of Idaho Athletics

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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