GREELEY, Colo. — Down three points with about three minutes to go, the situation Saturday was manageable.
Idaho’s football team found itself in a fourth-and-2 quandry at Northern Colorado’s 45-yard line. On the previous play, Mason Petrino fired incomplete to a blanketed Jeff Cotton.
The senior quarterback, who’d been flustered through much of the second half, appeared to dislike the no-call, so he let the officials hear it.
He was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Then out ran his father, coach Paul Petrino, to support his son, who’d thrown three interceptions to that point.
Same thing. Another 15-yard penalty.
It then became unmanageable, and the Vandals were forced to punt, leaving their fading defense with little time to regain possession. It was a crucial meltdown emblematic of Idaho’s 27-24 Big Sky Conference loss to previously winless UNC, a long-running Football Championship Subdivision bottom feeder, at Nottingham Field.
After squandering a 14-point lead, the Vandals (2-3, 0-1) followed up their best win in the past three years — last week’s upset of Eastern Washington — with one of the worst defeats of Paul Petrino’s tenure.
“Little bit too much patting ourselves on the back after last week,” the coach said.
It was thanks in large part to UI’s fourth-quarter stalling (one first down), its secondary’s numerous blown coverages, its 130 penalty yards on 13 flags and Mason Petrino’s trio of inopportune picks — two in the red zone, one leading to UNC’s deciding score.
Its seventh-year coach shouldered the blame.
“It was a terrible job by me. That’d be where it would start,” Paul Petrino said. “I did a bad job getting us ready to go all week. We were undisciplined, had way too many penalties.
“Made a couple of bad calls that turned into unfortunate turnovers. Just all the way around, I did a bad job.”
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Bears (1-4, 1-0) capitalized on a Vandals illegal block penalty on fourth down, then tipped the ensuing punt. Not two minutes later, they furthered their momentum on a third-and-goal pass interference call against UI’s Tyrese Dedmon. It led to a short Milo Hall score to knot it at 24.
“All the third-down conversions on penalties. I don’t know how many they had, but it seemed like a lot, and that you can’t have,” Paul Petrino said. There were four.
On snap No. 1 of the Vandals’ next series, Mason Petrino tried to force one into double coverage. It provided UNC its third interception, extra zest, and the ball with ideal field position.
Bears quarterback Jacob Knipp marched his offense enough to help give UNC the lead on a chip-shot field goal.
“(Mason’s) last interception is on me; that was a stupid call,” Paul Petrino said. “The first two, we can’t have that.”
With UI up 10 and threatening to score just before halftime, Mason Petrino rolled right and dumped one off, right to UNC cornerback Michael Walker. Then with the Vandals up seven and at the Bears’ 5-yard line late in the third, he trotted right again and attempted to thread a ball to heavily covered Connor Whitney. It was tipped around, and again intercepted by Walker.
“Mason can’t throw that ball in the end zone with all those people around,” Paul Petrino said.
Mason Petrino went 19-of-33 for 227 yards and two touchdowns, and added 84 yards rushing, many moving the chains early.
The first turnover let the Bears hang close after Idaho initially set a physical precedent. The second gave UNC’s sideline confidence.
“You let someone hang around, and they’re gonna beat you,” Paul Petrino said.
UI’s ground game was efficient, but strangely not relied on as much down the stretch. With Roshaun Johnson sidelined, freshman Nick Romano’s workload increased, and he got hot.
Romano logged 132 yards on 15 carries, including a burst-through, 27-yard touchdown early in the second — UI’s first of the game and Romano’s first of his career.
The Vandals’ offense was palpably overpowering UNC for two-and-a-half quarters. The Bears’ balanced efforts had been offset by long-lived Idaho drives buttressed by Romano, Cotton (six catches, 90 yards) and until pick No. 2, Mason Petrino. Two series ended with left-side scramble-drill scoring passes to Cutrell Haywood, the second of which put UI up 24-10 with 10:32 left in the third. But a drive later, the Vandals began to decelerate.
“There were parts early in the game where we could’ve taken a bigger lead, we could’ve significantly gotten after them, and we didn’t,” Paul Petrino said.
It can’t all be pinned on the offense’s inability to put it away.
Knipp, who went 14-of-23 for 250 yards and two scores, picked apart UI’s secondary. Both of his touchdowns were deep shots, fired beyond broken coverages. Hall, who had 141 yards on 39 carries, gradually wore down Vandal defenders who often were put in tough situations, but had been reliable for stops earlier.
Those included a late third-quarter fumble forced on a Knipp scamper by Lloyd Hightower (recovered by Christian Elliss) and a fourth-down pass broken up by Jalen Hoover, just before the fourth-quarter turning point.
N. Colorado 27, Idaho 24
Stars of the game
Northern Colorado running back MILO HALL had as packed a work day as ever, and he, along with quarterback JACOB KNIPP, carried the Bears to victory. Hall looked every bit the part of a Wyoming transfer, rushing for 141 yards and a score and gradually wearing Idaho down. Knipp had his best game of 2019. He went 14-of-23 for 250 yards and two touchdowns, and torched the UI secondary on long balls.
Bears cornerback MICHAEL WALKER wasn’t one to be picked on. For the most part, he held UI’s passing offense in check and recorded two red-zone interceptions on Mason Petrino.
Idaho had only a couple of bright spots in what otherwise was a sloppy game — true freshman running back NICK ROMANO got a bulk of reps in replacement of injured Roshaun Johnson, and rushed for a career-high 132 yards and his first-career touchdown. Linebacker TRE WALKER had another solid day in the middle, totaling a game-high 12 tackles and two for loss, one being a crucial sack early in the third to hold UNC to a field goal.
Idaho went up 24-10, but Northern Colorado refused to go down quietly. Knipp capped a two-minute drive with a 36-yard floater touchdown to Willie Fairman, and the UNC defense held the Vandals to a missed field goal. The Bears then overcame a lost fumble to pick off Petrino in the end zone. Heading into the fourth, the Bears were down a touchdown, but they grabbed the momentum.
The Vandals (2-3, 0-1) return home Saturday, where they’ll play No. 5 Weber State, a defense-heavy group, at 2 p.m.