Vandals find a way

Hayden Hatten, center, leads all Idaho receivers with 35 catches for 462 yards and three touchdowns.

Idaho’s loss last weekend can’t be attributed greatly to its shallow depth at wide receiver, but it surely didn’t help matters.

For unspecified reasons, the Vandals had just three receivers available in their deflating, 24-22 defeat at Idaho State, during which UI’s out-of-sync offense couldn’t sustain possessions.

After taking over for Mike Beaudry in the second quarter, reserve quarterback Nikhil Nayar toiled through a shaky outing, passing 11-of-34 for 130 yards. For the most part, he had two options.

Hayden Hatten and Cutrell Haywood were the only receivers to log catches (13 for 139 yards). 

“I thought Hayden still played well. Cutrell didn’t play as well as he normally does,” coach Paul Petrino said. “We usually spell him to give him more breaks. ... He had to play the whole game, and didn’t play quite as well.”

Idaho (2-2) remains searching for another consistent pass-catcher. Hatten and Haywood have combined for 683 yards and five touchdowns on 57 grabs. That’s the bulk of Idaho’s total passing production — 93 completions, 1,038 yards and six scores.

Starting running back Nick Romano (14 receptions, 148 yards) has been the third look.

“There’s an open spot,” Hatten said. “With JJ (Jermaine Jackson) going down, it really hurt us.”

Sizable expectations were placed in the preseason on Jackson, a speedster out of the College of San Mateo (Calif.). But he hasn’t played since sustaining a leg injury early in UI’s Week 1 win against Eastern Washington.

“He was a big player for us who unfortunately didn’t get to show a lot,” Hatten said.

“For sure, the deeper the wide-receiver room gets, the more open everyone gets, the more the ball can be passed around. It just allows for a more successful offense.”

The Vandals and ninth-ranked Eagles meet again at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.

Another target could be crucial for Idaho to keep pace with an explosive EWU offense, which ranks second in the Football Championship Subdivision in yardage per game (579.8) and fifth in scoring (41.2 points per game).

Pass-catchers in line to potentially step up include tight end Connor Whitney (seven catches, 88 yards), sophomore Sean McCormick, New Mexico transfer Elijah Lilly, junior Michael Noil and freshman Kyrin Beachem. Although fullback/tight end Logan Kendall has mostly been known as a formidable run-blocker, UI has had him slip out of the backfield for check-downs.

It’s uncertain who’ll be taking snaps. Beaudry appeared to suffer an injury late in the first quarter Saturday when he was sandwiched on a sack by two unblocked Bengals. Freshman CJ Jordan was kept out of the game after he was wrapped up awkwardly in the backfield midway through the previous week’s contest.

Nayar followed a poised, game-winning appearance in relief versus Southern Utah with a considerably tough outing, leaving one to wonder whether he's ready to manage a full game. Petrino noted that UI's receivers, despite what was lacking, were still finding openings, but too many tosses were off the mark.

While Hatten acknowledged the oddity of snagging passes from three quarterbacks, including touchdowns from two, he gave a vote of confidence in each.

“They’re all great players. They all do their own thing really well," he said. "Catching a football is catching a football. It doesn’t really matter whose hand it comes from.”

ONE IN?

According to national FCS pundits, Big Sky teams with two losses are likely disqualified from playoff consideration.

By that logic, the Vandals are out. They could, however, spoil EWU’s postseason prospects. It'll be the regular-season finale for the Eagles (4-1). With a win, they're certainly in.

If UI emerges victorious, the FCS power-conference Big Sky will probably send only its champion, Weber State, to the condensed, 16-team playoff, which will admit just six at-large qualifiers. Should the Vandals win out, and do so convincingly, there's a slight possibility that the playoff selection committee reevaluates.

The Eagles and No. 3 Weber State are the remaining BSC teams with clear routes to the postseason. UC Davis was a strong contender before losing to EWU last weekend.

"If you beat 'em (EWU), then all three of us have two losses, and we'll be the only one that beat a top-10 team twice (counting the Week 1 win over Eastern)," Petrino said. "So yeah, we just gotta go out there and give it everything we've got."

STATISTICAL UPDATE

Hatten, a backup tight end as a true freshman last season, is solidifying himself as an elite FCS receiver. The physical, sure-handed Scottsdale, Ariz., product is in the top five nationally in catches (8.7) and yards per game (115.5).

He rarely leaves the field. Now more than ever, the Vandals can't afford to have Hatten on the sideline with how frequently he gets open. In one-on-one coverage, his odds are always good.

"I plan on playing the whole game," he said.

Hatten was a three-star stat-sheet-stuffer while prepping at Pinnacle and Saguaro in the Phoenix area, catching passes from now-Oklahoma Sooner star Spencer Rattler at the former. He made SportsCenter's Top 10 last season for an improbable, one-handed fingertip sideline snag at Wyoming.

So while his emergence may seem to have come overnight, there had been hints.

“I was expecting to do this. I just knew, when I got my opportunity, to take it and run with it,” said Hatten, whose shot at WR came in the 2019 season finale at Northern Arizona, during which he hauled in two scores. “Ever since that NAU game ... I just took it and ran with it, and I don’t plan on giving it back.

"I'm proud of how I'm doing right now. Of course, I can always get better. I'm young. I'm only a sophomore. I've got three years of eligibility left and I plan to keep improving every year."

Senior Idahoan Cade Coffey is in the top five in FCS net punting average (47.6 yards). He’s dropped 12 boots inside opponents’ 20-yard lines. He's also 5-for-5 on field goals, with a long of 46.

“Cade’s the man,” star linebacker Tre Walker said. “Cade helps us out so much from a defensive standpoint. He flips the field every time.”

Walker leads the Big Sky in per-game tackling (15.7), while fellow standout linebackers Christian Elliss and Fa’avae Fa’avae each sit in the top 10. They spearhead a rushing defense that ranks first in the conference and in the top 25 nationally at 106.8 yards per game.

“We hold that as our main goal as a defense,” Walker said. “Stop the run and force the offense to do what they don’t like to.”

Idaho’s front seven has been key in a league-best red-zone defense that prevents scores about 35 percent of the time.

“Our linebackers have played really well. I think our D-line, as the game went on last week, played better,” Petrino said. “When we started putting pressure on them, we started playing better as a whole team.”

UI is tied for second-to-last in the BSC in total sacks (six), but the front has generally settled in after sluggish starts, generating pressure and making momentum-swinging plays in critical stretches.

Tackle Jonah Kim had a breakout day against Idaho State, posting a pair of bulldozing sacks and a TFL — the latter stops coming back-to-back on a late ISU possession. UI's offense got the ball back near midfield with under two minutes to go, but an offensive pass interference stalled the series immediately.

“We kept fighting, giving our offense an opportunity to be back in the game,” Walker said. “We started off slow ... but a lot of players came in, in clutch situations and gave us a chance.”

The Vandals own the second-worst pass-defense efficiency in the league, allowing about 360 yards per game on a 63-percent completion rate. Overall, UI’s defense ranks in the Big Sky basement (460 yards per game, 13 touchdowns).

Much of that can be chalked up to a new-look secondary that typically lags a step behind early in games. Petrino indicated that the group has been short-handed throughout the season, and thus has yet to nail down its rotation.

“We’ve had guys in and out of the lineup a lot,” he said. “There were times the other day where we got hurt, but they continued to fight, continued to play better.”

Of course, stability at QB has been a concern. As it stands, UI’s passing efficiency is at the bottom of the BSC.

“Quarterback-wise, we were just a little inaccurate (versus the Bengals),” said Petrino, who noted that UI's improving, freshman-laden offensive line often wasn’t at fault. “The week before (in a win against Southern Utah), that’s why we played so well — we were real accurate.”

Idaho is second-to-last in the league in third-down conversions (19-for-51) — another problem against ISU.

“Four out of the first six third downs, and throughout the game, we had some easy completions, and we just were inaccurate at times and then a couple of times we had drops,” the coach continued. “You lose by two points, and just one of those drives, we execute on third down, you give yourself a great chance to win.”

Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 627-3209.