Idaho’s Paul Petrino belongs to the most far-reaching coaches’ fraternity, the one that doesn’t teach its members to emphasize moral victories. Instead, it preaches the “expect to win” philosophy.
It tends to find its way into transcripts, whether they be pregame or postgame. It’s a common and skimmed-over coaching phrase, which even crops up in the hours/days preceding or following a supposed snoozer, a pay-to-play like FCS Idaho vs. FBS Wyoming: A team none of us gave a chance vs. a budding group receiving top-25 votes.
This week, like weeks before and weeks to come, Petrino, always a coy one, had provided ambiguous grounds for a potential upset, some “expect to win” remarks. Apparently, the writing was on the wall.
This game, a 21-16 Pokes win in Laramie, fit the Vandals’ early-season identity and disclosed it on ESPN3. Whether they like the label or not, they appear to primarily be comfortable with head-to-head, force-on-force, middle-of-the-trenches matchups.
They want to rely on a physical defensive front, then chew clock with long-lived possessions, chipping away bit by bit and cooling foes’ momentum. Those tendencies, I suppose, Petrino projected would fit the bill against some slow-moving Cowpokes.
The former UI quality was largely the case last year in its two best showings, one against nonthrower Montana State and the other vs. North Dakota, which mostly preferred short tosses — if any — and zone runs between the tackles.
And don’t take it the wrong way: That 2019 is simply a 2018 replica.
If Petrino wasn’t at all surprised, while everyone else anticipated a four-score loss, then that bodes well right now for the communal UI state of mind, which was again stricken with the blues after a 72-point loss at Penn State was followed with an uninspiring win over a Division II team.
I guess you’d put it like this: It means the Vandals look at least to be a sharpened version of their ’18 selves. Because no way would the 2018 Vandals have vied so close with a troupe like Wyoming’s, boasting a top-25 rushing O and a top-25 rushing D.
The ’18 UI wouldn’t have outgained the Cowboys, quashed their run-first QB — something Missouri somehow couldn’t do — and forced a pair of three-and-outs in the fourth, providing the offense a shot at swiping the lead, then later, a legit shot at the win.
In other words, last year’s Idaho wouldn’t have only lost because of a handful of individual blunders. There would’ve been an exploited game-plan flaw, overarching dominance from the opposition or something of the sort.
So chalk up a moral W, even if Petrino trends toward what “we” could’ve done; the missteps like UI’s seven flags, that one 80-yarder, a prevalence of red-zone field goals and the offense’s collapse in scoring position with four minutes left.
He might’ve been expecting a triumph, but us onlookers were simply shocked to see it so close, and to see Idaho play perhaps its best and most captivating all-around game since early 2017, and doing so in a challenging setting like War Memorial Stadium.
And getting a SportsCenter shout-out for the first time since Jordan Frysinger caught a one-handed bomb for a score in the ’16 bowl game.
The Vandals completed a 26-yard wide-receiver pass to rookie tight end Hayden Hatten, his first-career catch being a lay-out, one-hander that accrued a nod from the ESPN program later that night.
Idaho, finding success and national attention with a “body-bag game” trick play? Yeah, who expected that? Again, Petrino might've. A couple of weeks ago, he said Hatten was primed for some sort of breakout.
That's besides the point. If Saturday wasn’t an anomaly and tells us anything, it’s that the Vandals’ capacities in throwing already-average passers off-balance and bending only a bit, then cracking down on the run game will be key factors if they seek to compete for a playoff spot.
But that’d be looking way too far ahead, and it’d be way too optimistic at Week 4.
What it unquestionably tells us is that upcoming contests against Big Sky teams with raw quarterbacks and O-lines — and bruiser-games like Weber State and Cal Poly — just got a whole lot more intriguing.
That’s expected now. But it wouldn’t be Idaho football if there wasn’t any uncertainty. UI’s passing O oftentimes struggled against one of the nation’s bottom passing Ds. Plus, the secondary might not have allow squat, but it was hardly pressed by one of FBS football's worst passing attacks.
If the Vandals challenge a proven gunslinger or an exceptional defensive backfield, now that would be unexpected.
The tune-up and two inconsequential (record-wise) guarantee-revenue games are done. It’s on to FCS competition, where close doesn’t count.
You don’t have to tell Petrino that; he’s got some actual expectations now, and of course, we know he’s never been one to drag out moral victories.
Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.