Which UI team will show up? Your guess is as good as mine

Idaho running back Aundre Carter (22) breaks through the Weber State defensive line on a run up the middle during the first quarter of a Big Sky game on Saturday afternoon at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow.

MOSCOW — Confusion again abounds in Moscow. Classic Idaho move.

Not many others can tout such an oddball record. Only the Vandals can say they nearly lost to a Division II team, nearly beat a Mountain West team, toppled a ranked FCS team, fell to one of the worst FCS teams, then rebounded, and had a chance to upset the country’s No. 4 bunch in Weber State.

What is this puzzling, Jekyll-and-Hyde nonsense?

It’s by virtue of the recent age, the custom of Paul Petrino’s Vandals. You’re only sure about a few things — there’s a bundle of under-the-radar talent overshadowed by the team’s inconsistencies; there’ll be a bunch of burly guys, first-rate punters, a band of Southeastern products, and for sure flags (probably two unsportsmanlike).

But that’s not including the route UI takes in play.

There could be 50 rushes, or maybe 40 passes. Perhaps, like we’ve seen a couple of times recently, the air game is overutilized when it doesn’t need to be. It might go for around 300 tops, but it’s been known to undermine the offense via its mad variations.

Maybe one in the long string of sturdy halfbacks gets carry after carry in a bulk-on-bulk bout of attrition. Maybe a vet O-line bruises others, like in 2016 or a few times in ’19, or maybe it allows more sacks than anyone in the country, like in 2017.

It’s one or the other in most aspects; regularity in methodology by year or week is a pipe dream at the Gem State’s flagship school.

I mean, really, how often over the last half-dozen years has UI featured an obvious, solidified, persistent M.O.?

I guess there’s a little stability in the aforementioned traits, and in the fact that Vandal secondaries are generally lamentable. We have those.

And what we don’t have — any idea how Idaho will fare week in and week out. First comes an educated guess, hypothesized thanks to history: The Vandals have won 33 percent of their games since Petrino took control. So, probably a loss?

Fair, but so far, there’s a distinction between defeats. Take 2018 and ’19 as an illustration: Last year was more of a pure UI team — mostly, it was just bad. No confusion there. All three of its facets had talent, but were raw and managed by befuddled coaching, which failed to adjust to a new league. It did fine occasionally, mostly at home, as shaky teams are wont to do.

When it played teams obviously better than itself, it only played up twice. It didn’t really play down; it was already too low (see: four league blowouts).

Ah, there lies the difference. The 2019 Vandals have at least advanced to middling — like in 2015 — because what’s a tendency of average teams?

Playing up to superior competition, then playing down to those that, on paper, seem to be inferior (we’re not counting body-bag games, of course).

Either the Vandals have an affinity for close games, or they can’t help but emulate their opponents.

They matched Wyoming’s physicality; got in a shootout with a big-play D-II Central Washington team; edged Eastern Washington at its own game, allowed the Eags to retort, but held; and had a sloppy offensive display with an offensively sloppy Northern Colorado.

UI’s collapsed down the stretch as needed, given up hundreds of yards on penalties and handed the ball away, so not to go up by too much.

And they’ve flipped a switch.

Against Weber on Saturday, before a patchy Kibbie Dome congregation, UI didn’t hang its collective head after ceding an early 13-0 deficit. To keep it near, it didn’t lose complete control after surrendering three QB fumbles, or letting the Wildcat punter rush for 41 yards and a touchdown.

It mirrored Weber’s flags, its do-enough defense and its 400-yard day en route to, dare I say, a commendable 41-35 loss. UI did everything in its power late to keep it closer than expected, but at an arm’s reach, even going as far as taking a last-minute kickoff to the house for the first time in seven years to close it to one score.

Playing up when you’re not supposed to isn’t the problem — it might even breathe some life into a fan base that hasn’t had any lasting justifications for optimism in three years.

The issue is doing so consistently, to the point where UI at last enjoys fixed “playing-up” performances, and treats every game as so, and doesn’t succeed tidbits of promise with soul-crushers.

What’s troubling — the “playing down,” and the enigma that is Idaho football. The Vandals travel to Rip City, Ore. this weekend to square up with a Northern Colorado-esque Portland State troupe.

Which Idaho arrives? Your guess is as good as mine. But recent history indicates that it’ll look different than the one just seen. Knowing the Vandals, it will probably be weird.

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

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