Auspicious start

The Idaho Vandals celebrate taking possession of a fumble against Eastern Washington in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game, in Moscow, Idaho. Idaho defeated Eastern Washington 28-21.

With 11 minutes remaining in an already oddball season-opening college football game in late February, things got weirder.

Eastern Washington kicker Seth Harrison was hexed by the Kibbie Dome, with an apparent assist from the coronavirus.

The Eags and Idaho were knotted at 21 in a well-matched Big Sky affair on Saturday when EWU lined up for a 22-yard chip shot. Harrison slipped the attempt just inside the right-side upright, only for the ball to ricochet off the bottom of UI’s jumbo scoreboard.

An official posted underneath was preoccupied, fiddling with his face mask. By the time he’d gotten it airtight and impervious to all the COVID particles at field level, it was too late.

Judging by an SWX video replay, the zebra missed the play entirely, but caught the tail end, when the ball bounced out and fell onto the Vandals’ end zone.

He paused for way too long, looking for someone to offer help. Then, probably assuming it had doinked off the post, he signaled “no good.”

Eastern’s players appealed it like mad. They pointed at the screen, making their case that it didn’t matter where the pigskin ended up — it had gone through before Idaho’s venerable airplane-hangar arena spit it back, much to the delight of the approximately 3,000 semi-mask-wearing and so-so physically distanced Vandal fans in attendance.

The refs told the Eagles to chill out, and let the professionals handle it.

A video review was inconclusive. The call stood. And a day later, the conference came out and said it: “... it is evident that the official incorrectly ruled it a missed field goal. The Big Sky acknowledges and regrets this error in officiating.”

See, “unique conditions” created by the venue’s east-side catwalk and scoreboard made it impossible to determine whether the kick was good after the fact. That’s pretty much how the league put it.

Most of us just saw it as a wacky, objectively comical case of Kibbie Dome voodoo and a fitting instance of human error in this atypical era of corona. I've never witnessed such a thing, but the goofiness of it all nonetheless seemed apt in a season like this.

The story/video clip went viral Sunday, raking in over a million reads/views. Sports Illustrated and several other mainstream media outlets posted about it via Twitter, and former NFL All-Pro punter Pat McAfee shared his thoughts too. The cast of ESPN’s “Around the Horn” got a good laugh Monday from the Kibbie’s flex of home-field advantage.

Idaho wound up beating the 12th-ranked Eagles 28-21 on a gutsy, last-minute jump-ball from new quarterback Mike Beaudry to new starting receiver Hayden Hatten.

A three-point EWU lead early in the fourth may have altered momentum, and ultimately, the outcome. Yet the Vandals mostly shut the door on any what-might-have-beens by prevailing in such a way, and playing one of their most well-put-together, resilient games since rejoining the BSC in 2018.

That last bit has gone a touch under-the-radar in light of the amusing officiating mishap.

Strange as everything around it was — the national blooper, the long-awaited start of the delayed FCS spring season, and beer being served up to masked patrons in the Dome — Idaho’s performance was unique in its own right.

The last time the Vandals won a game during which they faced a 14-plus-point deficit? That’d be on Nov. 5, 2011, a 32-29 defeat of San Jose State.

Idaho fell into a 14-0 hole early in the second quarter against EWU. Beaudry’s arm was uncalibrated, and his feet unsettled in a troubling first quarter and a half. He misjudged an Eagle safety’s positioning on a deep ball midway through the opening period, and was jumped for a 71-yard pick-6. Social media wondered too soon: Might this be another dud of a start in the face of expectations?

Nope. The grad transfer out of UConn kept his composure, then concocted a commendable second half in which his quick balls were crisp, and his deep shots frequent — of course, that's not been the most established of trends for UI's program as of late.

The Vandals haven’t been a team known for comebacks in the recent past either, to put it mildly. First-half shortfalls have often equated to big losses. And eighth-year coach Paul Petrino has been criticized before for conservative approaches in tight contests.

Instead, Idaho enjoyed team-wide contributions in taking its first lead at :54 in the fourth. Its defense — expected to be one of the better units in the FCS — fared reasonably well in bottling up All-American Eagle quarterback Eric Barriere, and limiting chunk gainers by a potent EWU offense that ranked near the top nationally in multiple categories in 2019.

The secondary, a group not short on concerns over the past two seasons, wasn't gashed.

UI's offense snapped a funk, and overall, the Vandals mitigated self-inflicted errors. All of this despite UI losing two starters in the first half to injuries, and having standout linebackers Tre Walker, Charles Akanno and Fa’avae Fa’avae miss lengthy stretches with muscle cramps.

“We were definitely tested, but just great leadership,” Petrino said. “Our guys played their tails off, stuck together and kept fighting for each other. I’m super proud of them.”

Petrino didn’t let the clock wind down and put the outcome on his kicker’s leg, opting rather to go for the dagger on third down.

Another peculiarity relating to this weekend: Idaho checked in at No. 19 in the FCS STATS poll, which was released Monday. The Vandals hadn’t been ranked in a primary national poll since November 1995, when they entered the Division I-AA postseason at No. 17.

It should be noted, however, that a few dozen other FCS programs opted out of the spring season, including the Montana schools and reigning Big Sky champion Sacramento State.

But Idaho’s opener should provide its fan base a sense of confidence that UI is at least progressing toward FCS relevance, an impression that’d been lacking early on in recent Vandal campaigns.

UI’s players have shown such as well, boasting a newfound conviction and a “Why not Idaho?” attitude. Citing the team’s completeness, Petrino said earlier in camp that a Big Sky title “is out there for us.” Beaudry tossed his name in for consideration last week when the subject of “best quarterback in the conference” came up. A couple of weeks prior, Walker voiced a similar notion regarding UI’s front seven.

Perhaps the unusual weekend and abnormally promising start are appropriate for this bizarre, condensed spring season that’s sure to be full of oddities.

Regardless of what happens, I’m not so sure anything this year will trump the Kibbie’s jinx.

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