MOSCOW — The “good Vandals” reappeared for homecoming, and Paul Petrino wasn’t at all surprised.
Periodically, since the summer’s league media days, the seventh-year coach has peppered press gatherings with notes on how long his team has prepped for a few specific opponents, and how determined it’s been to prove to those Big Sky superiors that it didn’t need humbling.
“We worked ’em,” Petrino said after Idaho tamed Idaho State 45-21, avenging a 34-point loss in 2018. “We really worked hard on Eastern, Weber, Idaho State and Montana all offseason."
That’s maybe the seventh time he’s said that this year.
Here’s my theory No. 1 on this endlessly ambiguous Idaho team, which will probably make me out to be a fool again soon: Look at the schedule, pick out the uber-local foes and/or the playoff contenders presumed in the preseason.
There you have the wins or close contests.
Idaho’s on a tour of revenge, and Weber State was simply too apt to ignore. UI wanted to bypass the middle man, establishing itself in the upper-echelons of Big Sky play by way of personal vengeance, mostly.
In the process, it forgot about the lower-middle class.
No? Well, it’s a start on trying to determine how this unnatural team can handle a couple of legitimately solid adversaries and be outworked by cellar-dwelling Northern Colorado, and skunked by Portland State, the conference’s epitome of average.
“It kinda confuses me a little bit,” said senior cornerback Lloyd Hightower, who scored two defensive touchdowns Saturday. “We just gotta get it done.”
I’m not sure yet if I buy the whole “home prowess” thinking either. Yes, a boisterous “Idaho, Vandals” chant from one end of the Dome to the other might get players “turnt,” as Hightower said, but the Kibbie has seldom featured hyped gatherings.
My theory? It’s about the preparation. OK, and a bit about injuries, specifically to Jeff Cotton. But we’ll get to that.
Overpreparation and enthusiasm can do a lot of good; overlooking might end playoff hopes before the season reaches its halfway mark.
Theory No. 2 — homegrown quarterback Colton Richardson can do some good, too, but I doubt he’ll play again this year, even if his leg injury sustained in the third quarter Saturday turns out to be mild.
According to his father, Richardson’s down to 260 pounds, and he was notably nimble, and everything UI fans hoped he’d be after his redshirt was fried in 2017 for two insignificant games.
It was a coming-out party — 17-of-25, 289 yards, three total TDs, no turnovers, no risky decisions. And fittingly, the former Idaho Class 5A standout did so on an Idaho homecoming vs. Idaho State, a team that features 30 Gem State players.
Call it home cooking, and a feel-good moment for the junior, who’s battled injury and inconsistency. Last season, he could never get his feet off the ground as part of a halfhearted platooning system.
Seems all he needed was some preparation as the No. 1 guy.
Petrino said Richardson played his best-ever game. If that progresses to the near-future, it bodes well for UI faithful. Senior receiver Cotton seemed to let slip that the plan is to redshirt the QB, so he’ll have two full campaigns to go.
“He balled out,” Cotton said. “It was his last game playing, so I mean, it was an honor playing with him.... It was awesome to be a part of.”
It’s a fair move. If Mason Petrino misses more time, the Vandals should be OK with freshman Nikhil Nayar, who managed the last quarter and a half of the ISU game well with an offensive line giving its greatest collective effort. That’s providing UI’s running back corps heals up.
Side note: Come on guys, be realistic, Nayar won’t be named the starter during Mason Petrino’s senior year.
Theory No. 3, or, more of an argument — Cotton can make any signal caller look good, but this happened to be the finest he’s ever played.
It’s become quite clear just how much the Vandals’ offense relies on him to keep it elevated.
“Good job, I’m really proud of you,” said former four-year UI quarterback Matt Linehan, who couldn’t help but barge into the postgame news conference and give Cotton an embrace. “Are you guys doing something? Sorry, my bad.”
While sprinting up and down the sideline, Linehan was probably pondering all the damage he could’ve done if Cotton was one of his targets.
Cotton, who leads the league in yards (748) and catches per game (8.4), got the chance Saturday to flaunt his full array of tools — his back-shoulder grabs 25 yards downfield, his toe taps and high-point receptions deep in enemy territory. He flew free for 192 yards on 10 snags, most of it in the first half.
Last theory I’ll leave you with — Idaho’s staffers weren’t fibbing in fall camp when touting their defensive upgrades and depth.
When star buck linebacker Charles Akanno went down with an apparent ankle injury, juco transfer Leo Tamba stepped right in and registered two sacks, one leading to a game-sealing fumble-return TD by Hightower, the other to snuff out a last-ditch ISU drive.
By Paul Petrino’s postgame tone, it appears Akanno will miss either all or a significant portion of 2019.
The front seven effectively rattled Bengal QB Matt Struck, and as he settled, UI’s secondary remained unbroken, a far cry from its ’18 self. Corner-turned-safety Sedrick Thomas evidenced the thinking with the final score, the second pick-6 — and fourth turnover — on Struck and ISU’s high-powered offense.
It didn’t surprise Petrino, who’d been scheming the Bengals since the spring. Let’s just hope the less-emphasized opponents, like upcoming Cal Poly, don’t continue to shock the Vandals. If so, the theory’s not far off.
Clark may be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.