MOSCOW — It’s statistically impossible for Idaho’s football team to make the playoffs.
With two games remaining, the Vandals (4-6, 2-4 Big Sky) are in danger of finishing with four wins for the second consecutive season. If that happens, this might be looked upon as a new low point for a program that won a bowl game three years ago, and was in the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2017, before it became the first FBS team to move down a classification.
So when senior cornerback Lloyd Hightower left the Kibbie Dome after practice Tuesday, he felt reassured, and admittedly, a little surprised by the lack of a morose attitude.
“I know the character of this team. Everyone’s on the same page,” said Hightower, who’ll be one of 11 seniors honored by UI during Senior Day at 2 p.m. Saturday (SWX, Pluto TV) against No. 6 Sacramento State.
“You’d think I’d have to keep them engaged, but everyone seems to be already. I don’t have to do anything or say anything. No one had to be like, ‘Come on.’ Everyone was already locked in, ready to go.”
Coming off a somber 42-17 rout at then-No. 6 Montana, the Vandals somehow had one of their more sleek, energetic practices of the year. Chances are, it’s because they’ll be home this weekend, where things have been much less grim.
“You could see last week — home-field advantage is huge,” said senior quarterback Mason Petrino, who was jolted by a raucous environment last week in Missoula, Mont., on the way to four turnovers, his fourth multiple-giveaway game in the league in five played. Three of those games were away from home for Petrino, who leads the conference with 15 total turnovers, 11 in away games. Petrino’s completing 69 percent of his passes at home and 54 percent on the road.
“I still don’t get it, but we win here, so let’s keep doing it. I’ve had a good record here, the team’s had a good record here.”
Throughout this senior class’s tenure, the Vandals are 14-7 in the Kibbie Dome, the best four-year mark at home since 1995-98 (15-3). This season, UI’s 3-1 against Football Championship Subdivision teams in Moscow.
If the Vandals defeat the Hornets, it’ll be the first time in 23 years they’ve won five games at the Dome in one season.
UI’s tallied 177 points in its home FCS contests, compared to 41 on the road, where it’s 0-3 and has not won a game in 711 days.
“It’s probably the most important game of the year,” junior running back Dylan Thigpen said. “We have to send the seniors out with something special.”
LOOKING BACK — To Hightower, a few instances were key in Montana’s slow-to-rapid takeover of UI.
He blames himself for pressing — when he should’ve played off-coverage — on UM receiver Samori Toure, who accrued a little space and snagged a ball one-handed for 31 yards over the top of a tripping Hightower.
There was under two minutes left in the half, and the Griz eventually scored to go up 14-10 and quite clearly swat away any Idaho momentum.
“I blame that drive on me, which kinda sparked them back up. That’s mainly my fault,” said Hightower, who’s been a stable leader all season in UI’s secondary. “They didn’t do anything we didn’t expect, didn’t out-scheme us. A lot of penalties. Penalties really bit us.
“We retaliated more than we should have.”
UI was tagged with a season-high 14 flags, an ongoing trend for the league’s most-penalized team. Five of those were personal fouls — one came midway through the third quarter on safety Tyrese Dedmon, which sidelined him in the middle of his best showing (two forced turnovers) and extended a UM drive instead of bringing about a third-and-10 situation.
“You can’t let whatever they’re doing get to you,” Paul Petrino said of the game’s testiness and personal fouls. “That’s something we had a long talk about on Sunday. That needs to stop, and not happen ever again, because that plays a huge role in the game.
“You just gotta be disciplined enough to go to the next play, and play between the whistles. If it makes you super mad, then make something happen between the whistles.”
Hightower also said he felt the defense “plateaued” after it collected three takeaways, one on each of UM’s first three series.
It relates to a theme Hightower noted in what’s become another disappointing season — the Vandals’ inability to finish. They’ve lost three one-score games, two in which they had chances for game-winning possessions.
“If we have three turnovers at the beginning, we need to have three turnovers at the end,” Hightower said. “I’d change the way we finished (all season). They’re gonna make sure next year that that doesn’t happen.”
To Paul Petrino, Idaho is “not that far away” from vying for a postseason spot. Like Hightower, he sees a wealth of young talent on a team that failed to finish in three of its losses. Limiting its proneness for turnovers, getting a consistent pass rush (one tackle for loss against UM) and prohibiting yellow laundry wouldn’t hurt, either.
“We’re right there,” he said. “We gotta finish this year strong, have a great recruiting class and we’re right there.”
INJURY NOTES — Standout receiver Jeff Cotton, who leads the league with 911 yards, wore street clothes at practice after he took an awkward tumble on an attempted reception in the second quarter of Saturday’s game.
Running back Aundre Carter, who’s already missed 3½ games this season, didn’t practice after sustaining an unspecified injury when he was piled up in the backfield during the second quarter against Montana.
“I think Aundre will be fine for sure,” Paul Petrino said. Petrino said Cotton’s status is day-to-day.
Defensive tackle Noah Elliss hasn’t played since Oct. 12 at Portland State. He missed practice for the fourth consecutive week. Davontae Ginwright was absent again. When Petrino was asked if the two remain with the program, he said: “Noah is still with us.”
Guard Conner Vrba practiced after missing three weeks, and tackle Noah Gunn was limited.
Clark may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.