Saunders has heard all about Vandal lore; now, he's creating some of his own

University of Idaho photoIdaho running back Isaiah Saunders probes for running room against the Louisiana-Lafayette defense earlier this season. Saunders has been the Vandals’ workhorse late in the season.

BOISE - Isaiah Saunders has heard all about the good ol' days at Idaho. More than his fair share actually, but it was to be expected as soon as the running back from Elk Grove, Calif., signed on the dotted line, committing his next four years to the same program his father played for a few decades ago.

Saunders has been a breakout player for Paul Petrino's Idaho team the second half of the year and his late-season surge has been nothing but opportunistic for the Vandals, who ended Sun Belt Conference play on a four-game win streak before nabbing a spot in Thursday's Potato Bowl (4 p.m. PST, ESPN) at Albertsons Stadium.

The Vandals enter the postseason with an 8-4 mark and look to become just the second nine-win FBS team in program history, which is something Saunders might flaunt in his own household should it happen.

UI's redshirt sophomore running back is the son of Walter Saunders, a former Vandal receiver who was a standout in his own right during the program's banner years as an NCAA I-AA (FCS) school in the Big Sky Conference.

Walter Saunders played his college ball from 1991-93 and his UI teams gathered 26 victories while playing in four FCS playoff games.

"That's all he ever talked about," Saunders said earlier this week after a practice at Boise State's Craven-Williams Complex. "He always talks to me because he played when they were in AA and they were real dominant."

At Idaho, Walt Saunders was an All-Big Sky Conference wideout who also excelled as a punt returner. He played for John L. Smith, caught passes from All-American quarterback Doug Nussmeier and capped his UI career with a trip to the national semifinals, where the Vandals lost to a Youngstown State team coached by Jim Tressel.

"And every time I go home, that's all he ever talks about is, 'Oh we used to win back in the day. That's what Idaho was. We were a winning team,' " Isaiah Saunders said.

Following his playing career, Walter Saunders became a police lieutenant in Coalinga, Calif., but was eventually diagnosed with a rare disease, Valley Fever. The infection is a fungal form of meningitis and requires lifetime treatment.

Walt Saunders eventually retired from the police force because of his illness.

The second-year player has rapidly ascended the team's running back ladder and posted career numbers in five of his last six games.

He said his family fuels his physical brand of running.

"Especially my dad," Saunders said. "Just seeing him because he's been sick probably the latter half of my life, the whole second half of my life he's been real sick. So I just figured if he can get through his bad days, I can get through my bad days."

Saunders entered the year second to Aaron Duckworth on Idaho's depth chart. He was afforded 12 carries in a home beatdown of New Mexico State, turning the touches into a career-high 59 yards and one touchdown. With his downhill running, Saunders reeled off games of 89, 89, 142 and 99 yards while piling on five touchdowns in Idaho's final four contests.

"He just gets you those tough yards," Petrino said. "He gets you those 4- and 5-yard gains that just wear people out and I think he's just had great vision and really finishes, keeps his pads down, always is falling forward. As much as we've overcome as a team, he's overcame a lot as an individual."

Idaho's tailback is the third Saunders to play collegiately. His older brother Jalen played briefly at Fresno State before transferring for Oklahoma and therefore has experience on the same blue turf Isaiah's team will play on Thursday evening.

"I do remember talking to him about it when he was a freshman at Fresno State, he said it's no big deal," Isaiah said. "It's just blue turf."

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Lawson may be contacted at tlawson@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2260. Follow him on Twitter @TheoLawson_Trib.