When Idaho coach Paul Petrino previewed his special teams units during fall camp, he jokingly said he hoped to use new kicker Logan Prescott more than new punter Caleb Lightbourn.
He got his wish in Idaho’s opening 68-0 demolition of Simon Fraser on Sept. 4. Prescott was 1-of-1 on field goals and 9-of-9 on PATs, and Lightbourn never saw the field.
But that lack of in-game punt team practice came back to haunt the Vandals in their 56-14 loss Saturday to Indiana in Bloomington.
The Hoosiers returned two punts for touchdowns, including a blocked punt near UI's own goal line that was returned four yards for a score and an 81-yard touchdown return by D.J. Matthews, who joked in postgame interviews the return was so long his legs “got tired on me.”
Indiana wasn’t exactly the gold standard for special teams heroics going into the game, either. The Hoosiers hadn’t had a punt return touchdown since 2018.
Such costly special teams snafus are virtually impossible to overcome against a hungry Big Ten opponent. Petrino knew it going in.
His biggest key to the game was to get turnovers on defense like Montana did in a massive Sept. 4 upset of Washington. The Grizzlies racked up three takeaways in that one.
Instead, Idaho fumbled inside its own red zone, leading to an Indiana score, and allowed a pair of touchdowns on special teams — a 21-point swing that inflated the 42-point loss.
No takeaways to be had.
But looking at the bigger picture, one has to wonder if Idaho's spanking by the Hoosiers does more for the team in the long run than its beatdown of SFU in Week 1.
Now, the Vandals have obvious items to work on ahead of conference play. You could add run defense to the list, although Idaho drastically improved after Indiana’s starting running back Stephen Carr (118 yards, 1 TD) left the field.
It’s understandably harder to know where a team stands when everything goes its way.
Of course, there were some positives too.
Sophomore receiver Hayden Hatten somehow is on pace to have a better season than his All-American debut six months ago despite being limited for most of camp. Hatten carried the offense with 10 catches for 94 yards and UI’s two touchdowns in the loss.
On defense, junior linebacker Tre Walker performed as advertised in the tackles department, racking up a game-high 16, 11 of those solo tackles. Senior buck linebacker Charles Akanno flashed a glimpse of his stellar 2019 self with three tackles for loss and a sack.
The biggest question remaining is the direction Petrino will go at quarterback.
Freshman CJ Jordan showcased some big-play ability with his legs and arm in the big win against SFU, but mostly remained on the sideline against Indiana. He went 0-of-3 passing and rushed once for five yards against the Hoosiers.
Instead, veteran Mike Beaudry piloted the Vandals for most of the game. Aside from a costly fumble inside the 20-yard line, Beaudry again showed some poise.
He went 13-of-26 passing for 196 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions against the best defense Idaho will see all season.
Petrino has one more game before his deadline to name the starter by conference play. The Vandals head to Corvallis to play Oregon State at 12:30 p.m. Saturday — another big challenge against a big brother in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Wiebe may be contacted at (208) 848-2260, email@example.com or on Twitter @StephanSports.