MOSCOW — It’s been more than 20 months since Idaho’s football team has had an official starter at quarterback.
During his weekly news conference Tuesday, Vandals coach Paul Petrino finally caved, making good on a preseason promise to select one before Football Championship Subdivision play began.
Mason Petrino, a senior and the coach’s son, was named the starter after playing the majority of snaps so far in 2019, and rotating throughout much of 2018 with Colton Richardson — when Richardson was healthy, that is.
“Just staying in longer is the only difference; I don’t think much will change mindset-wise,” Mason Petrino said. “I’ve kinda had the mindset that I gotta prepare like I’m the guy, no matter what it was the past two years.”
Paul Petrino did do a little backtracking and said Richardson, a junior from Lewiston, could still get reps, although it would depend on the situation.
“This game’s a physical game, you saw that in the last game (a 21-16 loss Saturday at Wyoming),” he said. “Guys go down, so you always keep working everybody, keep getting guys better. Nothing’s over.”
Richardson played in two games as a freshman in 2017, so his redshirt was burned that season. But he could still redshirt this year, providing he doesn't play in more than four games.
Through three games, Mason Petrino is completing 61.3 percent of his passes. He’s compiled 484 yards passing and three touchdowns with one interception, and has 66 yards rushing, most of which came during a 41-31 win Sept. 7 against Division II Central Washington, a crafty showing from Mason Petrino that might have been his best at UI.
Against one of the Mountain West Conference’s top front sevens and one of the Football Bowl Subdivision’s worst passing defenses in Wyoming, Petrino went 15-of-33 for 184 yards.
He kept the Vandals (1-2) afloat with some intermittent improvisation — completing two notable third-down throws on the run for first downs — but had his intermediate game eventually quelled, lucked out twice on late-game near picks, and was sacked four times. Two of those came in pivotal fourth-quarter drives, and one knocked UI out of scoring position on its final series.
“A couple of times last week, I was too lateral, I didn’t make guys come force me (to scramble). (I) need more vertical (running),” Mason Petrino said. “Should’ve thrown the ball away, of course, a couple times.”
But Mason Petrino noted a budding confidence in the building after the Vandals’ commendable display. UI logged 50 plays to Wyoming’s 25 in the second half, controlled the clock, outgained the Cowboys and had ample scoring opportunities thanks to an offense that, so far, has looked more fluid than it had through much of 2018. Yet, most of those possessions either resulted in field goals or fizzled out just beyond Cade Coffey’s range.
“You’d like to see a little more explosive plays, but I think us just being able to drive the ball on those guys — with their success on defense the last couple years — gave us confidence for sure,” Mason Petrino said. “They definitely looked like Tarzan, played like Tarzan too. They were good, they were long. ... It just sucks, ’cause we played so good. We just gotta score touchdowns; that’s the biggest thing.”
Nevertheless, it was a rather successful exhibit of UI’s hallmark offensive trait: It aims to idle opposing offenses.
That’s the plan at noon Saturday, when UI stages a nonconference game against fellow Big Sky foe, No. 11 Eastern Washington (ROOT Sports). The Eagles feature a defense prone to bending, but makes up for that with an offense that averages about 500 yards per game and a top-tier Football Championship Subdivision quarterback in Eric Barriere, who can run and throw it at will.
“Our best defense would be our offense staying on the field,” Paul Petrino said. “That’s the key; that’s how we wanted to win last week.
“We’d like to see (Barriere) standing on the sideline as much as possible.”
In achieving that goal, Paul Petrino points to an offensive line that’s making weekly strides, an improving rate on third-down conversions and a stable of running backs who’ve gotten UI ahead of the curve on early downs.
But a couple of those backs were banged up at Wyoming — Aundre Carter and Kiahn Martinez — and the ground game faltered late, which left Mason Petrino to work from behind the chains, where he’s not been that efficient in the past.
Despite the “sour taste” left over — which Mason Petrino compared to last year’s one-point loss at Montana State — the Pullman grad affirmed the Vandals have found somewhat of a clock-management identity.
Additionally, he’s more self-assured and comfortable than he’s been ahead of one of the Vandals’ biggest matchups in a while.
“I’m mentally ready,” he said. “I think this is probably the most mentally prepared I’ve been for a game. I’m ready for it, our team’s ready for it.”
NOTES — Strong safety Satchel Escalante announced his intentions to transfer Tuesday on Twitter, and didn’t cite any reasoning. ... Defensive end Kayode Rufai and corner Sedrick Thomas are questionable for Saturday’s game with unspecified injuries.
Clark may be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.