MOSCOW — Lewiston-born quarterback Colton Richardson was dissecting Idaho State’s secondary; breakout buck linebacker Charles Akanno was an uncontrollable disruption in the Bengals’ offensive backfield.
So when Idaho’s football team lost bulldozing Akanno to a second-quarter leg injury, then saw its on-fire signal caller in Richardson go down in the third in a similar fashion, the air left the Kibbie Dome.
The injury-plagued Vandals needed someone to rise to the occasion Saturday, and maintain that margin those two had been key in building.
It just so happens everyone did. In a 45-21 Idaho homecoming win, the Bengals were kept at bay.
In front of 10,361 fans, UI’s defense scored three times, its offensive line allowed little pressure and its star, receiver Jeff Cotton, was overwhelming.
“We had some heroes today,” UI coach Paul Petrino said. “Guys stepped up; guys fought.”
The secondary did from the outset. After being torched for eight touchdowns in a rout last season, it logged two pick-6s against rattled ISU quarterback Matt Struck, whose league-leading efficiency took a major hit.
The first came late in the first quarter. Struck was flushed out of the pocket by Akanno, and the big-armed junior tried to force one along the sideline, only to have it cut off and taken 45 yards back by Lloyd Hightower, making it 14-0.
“Long time coming,” Hightower said. “That was 95 percent everybody else — all my teammates — and just five percent finishing the play.”
The other capped the third quarter, and the contest. Struck, who’d only thrown one pick all season before this game, seemed like he didn’t see safety Sedrick Thomas waiting on a hitch.
Struck threw it right to him, and Thomas shot 36 yards down the near sideline for the final margin.
That was only 15 seconds after the second defensive touchdown for UI (3-5, 1-3 Big Sky), scored when Leo Tamba — filling in for Akanno — blindsided Struck out of the pocket, forcing a fumble. The ball trickled about, and was batted backward by Rahsaan Crawford into hard-charging Hightower’s hands.
“(Crawford) was like, ‘Honestly, I knew I couldn’t score, so I was just gonna hit it back,’” Hightower said. “I was like, ‘appreciate that.’”
Hightower zipped 49 yards to the end zone, quelling the Bengals’ hopes for a comeback. They’d assembled a 21-7 rally to snip it to a two-score edge at that point.
“That’s awesome, so awesome, and against a really good offense,” Petrino said of UI’s triad of defensive scores. “You’re really happy when guys that work their tail off all the time, and are good kids, play good. Lloyd’s all of those things.”
Before sustaining his injury on a scramble, Richardson was as good as ever. Replacing injured Mason Petrino, he went 17-of-25 for 289 yards, two passing touchdowns and another rushing — a 2-yard rollout to open the scoring, during which he flattened two ISU defenders.
It was thanks to an Akanno strip-sack and scoop on the Bengals’ first series, one of eight tackles for loss.
“Most games, whoever hits the quarterback the most, and the hardest, wins,” Paul Petrino said. “We did a good job of that.”
On the other side, the Vandals’ offensive line, which has struggled the past two weeks, gave Richardson and backup Nikhil Nayar ample time, and its running backs just enough room. Only one sack was allowed, and Richardson evaded pressure effectively.
“(Richardson) played hard. ... That’s the most time we’ve had to throw in a long time,” Paul Petrino said. “It helps having (Cotton) out there. He’s a stud.”
Cotton, returning from injury, terrorized the Bengals’ secondary, on deep routes especially. He ended with 10 grabs for 192 yards and a score, a 5-yard out early in the second quarter to stretch the Vandals’ lead to 24-0.
“Last year, they embarrassed us. This is a game I’ve been waiting for since,” said Cotton, who made ISU pay over the top for its tendency to play him in single coverage. “There was just a lot of motivation going into this game, and I just played my best.”
Idaho State (3-4, 2-2) closed the gap to 10 after a short possession started with a Nick Romano fumble recovery, then a lengthy, chip-away drive. Struck settled down a bit after intermission, but Richardson had forever to read the field and respond.
With 12 minutes to play in the third, he hung in the pocket for four seconds, scanned from left to right, and spotted tight end Connor Whitney alone 40 yards downfield. Richardson put it on him for a 58-yard TD.
After Richardson’s exit, Nayar played the role of game manager, and did it well. Running back Dylan Thigpen (17 carries, 97 yards) — replacing injured Aundre Carter and Roshaun Johnson — chewed the clock as the Vandals’ defensive backs averted broken coverages, and the front seven kept Struck on edge.
Struck went 27-of-52 for 316 yards. Really, his only target was Mitch Gueller (11 catches, 166 yards, TD). Standout ISU running back Ty Flanagan was held to 44 yards as UI continued its topsy-turvy season.
“I expected us to play like that, I really did,” Petrino said of his team’s first league win. “They fight, they’re tough. We have to take that next step and play like that on the road.”
Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.
Idaho 45, Idaho State 21
Stars of the game
Idaho senior cornerback LLOYD HIGHTOWER logged two of the Vandals’ three defensive touchdowns, and claimed revenge after the UI secondary was torched by Idaho State last year. He took an interception back 45 yards for a score in the first, then collected a loose ball and ran 49 yards for another late in the third.
The Vandals combo of quarterback COLTON RICHARDSON and receiver JEFF COTTON gave ISU’s defensive backs nightmares. Cotton, oftentimes tested with man coverage, piled up 192 yards and a score on 10 catches. Richardson aired it deep plenty, and was on target in his best game as a Vandal before a third-quarter leg injury sidelined him.
Backup buck linebacker LEO TAMBA filled in efficiently for injured standout Charles Akanno. Tamba had two sacks, one of which resulted in a fumble. Christian Elliss and Tre Walker combined for 25 tackles.
With Idaho State’s incendiary offense mounting a comeback, Idaho needed someone to rise to the occasion. It was Tamba, the backup to injured Akanno, who put it away. He blew past ISU tackle Jacob Angel and blindsided Bengal quarterback Matt Struck, forcing a fumble Hightower eventually scooped up and returned all the way for a touchdown. Fifteen seconds later, UI safety Sedrick Thomas sat on a hitch route, picked Struck off, then dashed 36 yards for the Vandals’ third defensive touchdown, sealing the win to avenge last year’s loss at ISU.
The Vandals (3-5, 1-3) are on a much-needed bye week. They’ll be back home for a 2 p.m. contest Nov. 2 against Cal Poly, which runs a triple option.