You can’t fault Vandal boss Paul Petrino for turning a predicament into a device for fundraising.
To his credit, it was a clever spin. Petrino made an effort to capitalize on the most difficult obstacle to traverse in this abnormal spring season — player availability.
“When you start the game with three freshmen on the O-line and a freshman at quarterback, and with how well they played,” said the eighth-year coach after UI eked out a 33-32 win against Southern Utah at the Kibbie Dome on Saturday, “that should make all the Vandal faithful and boosters out there feel pretty excited about the future of Vandal football.”
That is, invest in what’s to come. A major part of this COVID-delayed Big Sky campaign, to break it down optimistically, is a preview of potential.
Or better yet: Who’s got the most prepared, high-ceiling backups? In my mind, that’s the most significant difference between this season and any regular one.
Their capacities might not be fully realized for another year or two. And any number of more experienced starters could be absent weekly because of you-know-what.
Yet despite shallow roster depth at a couple of positions that really count, the Vandals are adaptable — they can still pull off nervy, electrifying, comeback victories with unpredictable, Cinderella-type finishes.
After winning under the circumstances, when they’re at their cheeriest, you can imagine that’s how the Vandals feel.
“All kinds of new guys out there, you’re without a few of your key players, and they just kept fighting,” Petrino said.
Whether fluctuating rosters mean the six-game league-only schedule and subsequent Football Championship Subdivision playoffs are to be taken with a grain of salt remains up for debate. The now-24th-ranked Vandals (2-1) certainly don’t think so.
An FCS postseason bid is possibly up for grabs if they win out. That’d make this season a legitimate success, or at least mark a shift in a much more positive direction after two years of mostly misery in the Big Sky.
One more loss knocks Idaho out of contention. UI was teetering dangerously on the brink of defeat versus the improved Thunderbirds, and was overwhelmed late March 6 against UC Davis, which took advantage of nine missing Vandal standouts — most of those presumably attributable to the school’s coronavirus protocol.
In the Vandals’ defense, they didn’t employ their short-handedness as an excuse. But they surely could have.
If one or two plays hadn’t gone their way Saturday, nobody would’ve blamed them for playing that card.
“It’s been a crazy year,” said Petrino, whose team’s season had been shelved for the past two weekends because of COVID-19 issues in the program. “You kind of have a different lineup, maybe every day. Every day, different people, different people playing different positions, different people on special teams.”
UI’s roster wasn’t as limited as it was March 6, but it was without starters at two team-captain posts.
Superstar junior middle linebacker Tre Walker — objectively one of UI’s three top pound-for-pound players — and grad transfer quarterback Mike Beaudry were unavailable for ... unspecified reasons.
“You’re missing one of the best players in the whole country,” Petrino said of Walker, whose status for this weekend is questionable.
“But a bunch of guys played hard and stepped up.”
UI adjusted to Walker’s absence, switching up its defense to a two-linebacker set for the bulk of the contest, with pro prospect Christian Elliss moving to the middle.
In the first half, the Vandals looked muddled, and were getting shredded, but they settled in and stymied SUU’s offense in critical situations down the stretch.
True freshman QB CJ Jordan was thrust into action a year earlier than anticipated. Jordan has been tabbed Idaho’s future at the position, but of course, a rookie field general’s first start isn’t often expected to be a great one.
Jordan showed out well, though, impressing with poised decision-making, evasive backfield maneuvers and solid arm strength. In short, the rookie from Portland, Ore., boosted enthusiasm for the program’s future.
“I’m going to be happy watching him when I leave,” senior UI running back Dylan Thigpen said. “He’s gonna be great for the Vandals.”
Then Jordan sustained what appeared to be a minor ankle injury late in the third quarter when he was dragged down awkwardly for a sack. He was kept out for the remainder of the day.
Third-year third-stringer Nikhil Nayar finally got his shining moment, and came through with calmness in the pocket and a handful of clutch tosses.
He guided two pass-heavy scoring drives — one that decided the outcome with seven seconds left — and left UI fans rightfully wondering: “Do we have the best No. 3 quarterback in the FCS?”
This year, maybe it’ll take something like that. The "next man up" philosophy is more applicable than ever.
In just three games, three Vandal signal-callers have alternated in the spotlight. Chalk that peculiarity up to the nature of the season.
Going forward, that might make Petrino’s job a bit tricky, but perhaps he won’t have to decide on a starter himself.
“The first thing in anything this year is who’s available, then we’ll go from there,” he said. “This day and age, defensive linemen are good. Guys can get banged up, guys can get dinged. So that you’ve got three guys who have the ability to go in there is a good thing.”
As he’s indicated, this spring has introduced a weekly roulette of availability. It's been the same for everyone.
In fact, Cal Poly decided Monday it'd sit out the remainder of the season because of a multitude of serious injuries, and several spring opt-outs.
The Vandals had a few players elect to opt out until the fall as well.
On one hand, the newbies are absolutely improving. No one’s losing any eligibility, and the Vandals have every right to believe this season will serve them well in the coming years.
It should be noted that UI’s rookie-laden offensive line paved the way for a season-high 209 ground yards against a T-bird team that entered the day leading the conference in rushing defense at 93 yards allowed per game.
Otherwise, it’s a roll of the dice in terms of where Idaho will be lacking. If we assume the pattern holds, then it’s possible that veteran absences at crucial points later this spring will be to blame for another missed postseason.
Or, Petrino might be supplied some more fodder for potential investors.
Clark may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 627-3209.