Game Preview

FIRST LOOK: Vandals come to Missoula for first time since 2003

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MISSOULA, Montana — For the first time since Bobby Hauck’s first season of his first tenure coaching the Griz football team, the Idaho Vandals will take on Montana in Missoula in “The Battle for the Little Brown Stein” on Saturday.

The last time UI played at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, Hauck and the Grizzlies used a triple option attack spearheaded by walk-on Kyle Samson to a 41-28 win in September of 2003. UM and Idaho did not play again until last year’s 46-27 UM win in Moscow.

The Vandals left the Big Sky Conference to move up to Division I-A in 1996.The 2003 matchup marked the 84th rendition in a rivalry that began with a 28-0 Idaho win in Moscow in 1903. UM went 4-1 against Idaho while Idaho was a member of the FBS, the final victory coming in Hauck’s first season as the head coach at his alma mater.

Saturday, the Vandals return to Washington-Griz for the first time in 15 years.

“This has been a big game in these parts for decades, for a long time,” Hauck said. “They are playing well. They had a big win last week against Cal Poly (21-9). They had a tough loss against Weber State (41-35 in Moscow) and they beat Idaho State (45-21) fairly handily. They have been playing really well lately.”

Last season, Montana quarterback Dalton Sneed threw for 220 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 129 yards and another score. He hit Sammy Akem six times for 130 yards and two scores. And Montana won going away despite forcing one turnover and giving up 477 yards of total offense.

“It was evident last year when we played them, there was a lot of juice on their sideline and our guys were excited to play, too,” Hauck said. “It’s fun to get back playing each other again.”

The loss Montana capped Idaho’s first season back in the FCS with a 3-5 record in league play. The following week, the Vandals took a 63-10 shelling at No. 13 Florida to finish the season 4-7.

Idaho wide receiver Jeff Cotton (88) in 2018/by Brooks Nuanez

The Vandals bookended playing at the Swamp by starting the 2019 season at Penn State in Happy Valley, a 79-7 loss. Idaho’s first win came by emerging with a 41-31 victory over Division II Central Washington. The Vandals showed their physicality and defensive athleticism by hanging tough in a 21-16 loss at FBS Wyoming. And UI broke through for its first FCS win of 2019 by toppling rival Eastern Washington 35-27 in a non-conference game between conference foes.

Idaho lost the next week 27-24 at previously winless Northern Colorado, the first of three straight losses. UI lost 41-35 to Weber State, now the No. 3 team in the nation and the only team without a league loss five games into Big Sky play. And UI lost 24-0 at Portland State as quarterbacks Mason Petrino and Colton Richardson combined to throw four interceptions.

The Vandals are suddenly surging. Despite losing Buck end Charles Akonno to a season-ending injury, UI totaled three sacks and forced four turnovers, returning three of the takeaways for touchdowns in a 45-21 rout of Idaho State.  Last week, Idaho held Cal Poly to 145 yards rushing and 242 total yards, allowing 13 first downs.

“They are very sound,” Hauck said. “Their coaches know what they are doing. They are going to mix coverage on you. They are going to mix pressure, some man, some zone. I think they always have a pretty good blend. Coach will have a good game plan for what our base stuff is, things we do week in and week out. We have all coahed against each other a lot at different places over the years. I think they do a good job of trying to make you beat them left-handed.”

Idaho leads the all-time series 55-28-2, but UM has won nine of the last 11 meetings dating back to 2011.

Former Montana defensive coordinator, Idaho defensive coordinator Mike Breskse (R) in 2018/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana is coming off a 38-23 win at Portland State that moved the Griz to 4-1 in league play, 7-2 overall and up to No. 6 in this week’s FCS STATS Top 25 poll. The Griz won the second half 24-6 to pull away.

“It was a great job by our guys and I thought it was a great team effort,” Hauck said. “Physically, we got after them. I thought maybe at times during that game, we could’ve gotten away from them a bit more but that’s not important. The important thing is to get one more point than them and we did.”

“Good team win, great mental toughness when things weren’t going well for us and right now, we are kind of on a roll and we would like to keep it going.”

QUICK HITS

Location: Moscow, Idaho

Nickname: Vandals

Founded: 1889. The state of Idaho’s land-grant university also serves as the oldest public university in the Gem State and the state’s primary research institution. UI was the state’s sole university for 71 years until 1963. UI offers 142 degree programs with a strong regional reputation for agriculture, architecture, business, engineering and law.

Enrollment: The university has 11,534 students, including 9,330 undergraduates, and an endowment of $281 million.

Stadium: Kibbie Dome – In 1971, the original outdoor concrete football stadium replaced Neale Stadium. Following the 1974 football season, a barrel-arched roof and vertical end walls were added in ten months and the stadium re-opened as an enclosed facility in September 1975.

The venue has 16,000 permanent seats, making it the smallest home stadium in the Football Bowl Subdivision during the Vandals’ 22-year stint competing at the top level of college football. During basketball season, the dome is reconfigured into a basketball arena known as Cowan Spectrum, which seats 7,000.

The Vandals are 4-1 in five home games, averaging 7,041 this season, including drawing a near-capacity crowd of 10,361 in the win over Idaho State.

The Coach

Paul Petrino, seventh season at Idaho. The son of Treasure State legend Bob Petrino Sr. played quarterback at Carroll College from 1985-1988 for his dad in Helena. Born in Butte, Paul Petrino’s first full-time job came on his father’s staff at Carroll in 1990.

His first Division I job came coaching wide receviers and running backs on John L. Smith’s staff at Idaho from 1992 until 1994. Petrino followed Smith to Utah State for three seasons, then to Louisville in 1998 and 1999.

From 2000 until 2002, Petrino coached quarterbacks on Jeff Bower’s staff at Southern Miss. In 2003, Petrino joined up with his older brother, Bobby Petrino, when Bobby landed the head coaching job at Louisville in 2003.

The Petrino brothers lasted four seasons in Kentucky, the 2007 season with the Atlanta Falcons, and 2008 and 2009 at Arkansas. Paul Petrino went to Illinois in 2010 and 2011 while Bobby was unceremoniously fired in the spring of 2012.

Paul Petrino took over as the head coach at Idaho in 2013. The Vandals finished 1-11 that fall with UI playing as an FBS independent.

In 2014, the Vandals joined the Sun Belt Conference, a league featuring mostly Southern teams two time zones away. UI went 1-10 the first yea in that league. In 2016 however, Petrino earned Sun Belt Coach of the Year honors by leading the Vandals to a 9-4 record that included six Sun Belt wins and a win over Colorado State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, UI’s third bowl game in program history.

Overall, Petrino is 27-53 at Idaho, including 5-8 in Big Sky games.

“They are really well coached,” Hauck said. “These coaches know what the heck they are doing. They will have their team ready. We know they spent time on us in spring ball and fall camp. So they will be well prepared, ready to go and fired up to play this weekend in Missoula and we know that we better be the same.”

Mason Petrino, quarterback, 6-0, 208, senior — The son of Idaho’s head coach saw time at running back and wide receiver in 2016 and 2017 upon joining the Vandals after prepping at nearby Pullman High eight miles away from Moscow.

Last season, Petrino started 10 of 11 games, completing 59.8 percent of his passes for 1,933 yards, 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also rushed for 245 yards and three scores.

“He’s a smart player,” Hauck said. “He runs well. He has a good understanding with what they are doing on offense. He has the ability to extend plays. He’s very accurate throwing on the run. And he’s your typical coach’s kid. He’s tough as heck and has a great understanding of the game.”

This season, Petrino has started eight of nine games, throwing for more than 200 yards four times. He has thrown for 1,371 yards and nine touchdowns against seven interceptions. He went 8-of-15 for 70 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and was sacked three times in a 24-0 loss to Portland State. He did not play in Idaho’s win over ISU. He returned last week to throw for 138 yards and a touchdown in UI’s win over Cal Poly.

Jeff Cotton, wide receiver, 6-2, 204, senior — The former junior college All-American at Pima CC made an impact last fall, catching 49 passes for 656 yards and a team-best seven touchdowns.

This season, Cotton has exploded multiple times and given himself an inside track on All-Big Sky honors.

He caught 16 passes for 145 yards and two scores in a win over Central Washington. He had 10 catches for 110 yards and a score against Eastern Washington. Cotton hauled in 10 passes for a career-high 192 yards and a touchdown against Idaho State.

“I think he’s their best player on offense,” Hauck said. “He’ makes a ton of plays. He’s all over the place. They do a nice job of trying to find different ways to get him the ball. He’s just a talented kid.”

Aundre Carter, running back, 5-9, 241, redshirt freshman — The Starke, Florida finished as the state runner-up in the 2017 5A Florida Mr. Football voting. He made his Vandal debut against the Gators, getting two carries against Florida.

With the graduation of Isaiah Saunders, Carter is now Idaho’s workhorse running back. He rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns aginst Central Washington. He had two more touchdown runs against Eastern Washignton. Last week, Carter had his most productive game, finishing 179 yards on 23 carries and scoring twice more.

This season, he has 557 yards rushing on 96 carries, good for 5.8 yards per carry. He has scored seven rushing touchdowns.

THE DEFENSE — Players to Watch

Tre Walker, linebacker, 6-1, 235, sophomore — Despite only starting two games last season as a freshman, the Dos Palos, California native showed how incredibly productive he can be. He had 41 tackles and three tackles for loss.

This season, Walker has been a tackling machine. His 103 tackles rank second in the Big Sky to Montana’s Dante Olson (107) but Walker has 17 more solo tackles than Olson does. Walker has 7.5 tackles for loss, one more than Olson and the 13th-best total in the Big Sky.

Walker had 13 tackles against Wyoming, 14 tackles against Eastern Washington, 12 tackles and two tackles for loss against Northern Colorado, 13 tackles against Weber State, 14 tackles against Idaho State and 11 tackles last week against Cal Poly.

Christian Elliss, linebacker, 6-3, 233, junior — Elliss is one of 12 children of Luther Elliss, the former NFL All-Pro defensive lineman who played at Utah and now coaches defensive line at Idaho. Last season, Kaden Elliss was one of the best players in the country off the edge, earning first-team All-Big Sky honors before getting drafted ty the New Orleans Saints.

Christian Elliss had a standout sophomore season, earning third-team All-Big Sky honors by rolling up 81 tackles, four tackles for loss, forcing a fumble and blocking a kick.

Elliss had just 17 tackles through UI’s first four games before notching 13 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss against Weber State. The following week, he had 14 tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack against Portland State. After his 13-tackle performance against Cal Poly, he had four straight double-digit tackle games that also including at least one tackle for loss. He has 68 total tackles, 10th in the Big Sky, to go with 10 tackles for loss, tied for the fifth-most in the conference.

Lloyd Hightower, cornerback, 5-11, 189, senior — Last season, Hightower ranked third in the Big Sky and eighth nationally with 13 pass breakups to go with 44 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and an interception.

This year, he’s been Idaho’s primary cover cornerback, reflected in the fact that 15 of his 22 tackles are solo tackles. Against Idaho State, Hightower returned an interception 45 yards for a touchdown, one of two picks he’s snared this season. He also returned a fumble 49 yards for a score, the second of three defensive touchdowns as the Vandals blasted their in-state rivals. Hightower has two interceptions, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles.

Photos by Idaho Vandal Athletics, or Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

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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