MOSCOW — It was just like the old days. Yet this time, it was wholly unexpected.
The Idaho football team had steadily overpowered the Eagles of Eastern Washington during the short span of the teams’ Big Sky coexistence in the 1980s and ’90s.
In the 2000s, it’d been a different story.
But for the first time in 20 years, the tables were turned once more Saturday at the Kibbie Dome.
The Vandals, in their second season back in the Football Championship Subdivision, physically outmanned their opponents and managed the pace through much of their nonconference tilt with league foe Eastern, the FCS’ 11th-ranked team and last year's runner-up.
Idaho held firm late after taking a four-touchdown halftime lead, enough to claim what easily was its best win in three years, a 35-27 decision against heavily favored EWU.
Despite absorbing what UI coach Paul Petrino called an “embarrassing” 24-point loss in Cheney last season, the Vandals certainly didn’t feel or appear to be 20-point underdogs.
For the most part, they looked like the vintage Vandals.
“We knew from the get-go that we were gonna get on them,” said linebacker Christian Elliss, a primary factor in UI’s substantial stifling of the Eags’ incendiary offense. “I don’t think it was an upset, I really don’t.
“It was a personal game. We wanted to destroy them, we wanted to bury them.”
Idaho (2-2) set the tone promptly with consecutive scoring possessions, both underlined by poised play from starting quarterback Mason Petrino and an offensive line that punched the air out of the EWU defense. Petrino went 22-of-31 for 240 yards and two touchdowns with one interception, and was sacked just once.
Running back Aundre Carter bruised his way into the end zone twice in 10 minutes, the first a 7-yard inside run in which he dragged a pack of defenders with him — that being emblematic of Carter’s and Roshaun Johnson’s tackle-shedding day. UI totaled 223 yards rushing in all.
“You could feel our O-line kinda taking control of the game,” Mason Petrino said. “We kept hitting them, hitting them. ... You see guys drop, you keep running over them. Our backs were just punishing people.”
The first two series also represented UI’s successes in its keys: Control the clock to ground EWU’s offense and wear the Eags down.
The Vandals held the ball for 11 more minutes than Eastern, 13 minutes in the first half.
When star Eastern quarterback Eric Barriere got a chance, he was held to short drives, bottled up by a Vandals front seven that contained and tackled as well as it has in two years.
“People were worried: Could we cover these guys and could we get a pass rush on? And we did that,” Elliss said.
At the end of the first quarter, UI had almost 200 yards to EWU's 21. Not a lot changed in the second.
Mason Petrino was threading balls, one being a quick slant to Cutrell Haywood to put UI up 21-0; Barriere was uneasy, and when Eastern’s offense finally started rolling late in the half, he threw an ill-advised pass that was picked off by Elliss.
That was with the Vandals already leading 28-0, after Mason Petrino scooted in from 20 yards out on a read option.
“To stop that offense like they did in the first half, that was pretty awesome,” Paul Petrino said. “We outplayed them (in the first half) at every single position.
“Wish there wasn’t a halftime, ’cause I felt like at that point we were really wearing ’em out.”
It was only a matter of time before the Eags began to play like themselves.
Eastern (1-3), which like the Vandals was missing a handful of key players to injury, scored quickly with a hurry-up approach to open the third. EWU then blocked its first of two field goals, and a series later, cut off an underthrown pass for an interception, which set up Barriere’s second touchdown run.
“That was I think the biggest issue in the second half, they were going fast, fast, and we were too busy getting our calls in,” Elliss said.
Barriere went 28-of-46 for 365 yards and two touchdowns, most of that coming after intermission.
But an Idaho offense Paul Petrino admitted became conservative after halftime roused again, boosted by the Mason Petrino/Jeff Cotton passing connection that’s thrived all season.
Mason Petrino, who’s only improved his capabilities and deciphering of coverages with time, marched UI into scoring position midway through the fourth. On first-and-goal from the 2-yard line, he was prompted to scramble right, where he threw off one foot and on the run, zipping a pass between two defensive backs to Cotton for a 35-13 lead.
“Watching film this week, we knew these guys weren’t the team they were last year,” said Cotton, who again was a matchup nightmare with 10 catches for 110 yards. “Our receivers could really dominate their defensive backs.”
Eastern was able to rely on Barriere, and swiftly score twice more, but UI’s first-half supremacy proved to be too much to overcome.
Even without a starting corner (Sedrick Thomas) and defensive end (Kayode Rufai), the Vandals’ defense retained its revamped play seen in a narrow loss to Wyoming last week. It was highlighted by estimable box showings, especially from Elliss, Tre Walker (14 tackles) and Charles Akanno, who constantly was in the backfield.
Offensively, it was perhaps the most cohesive UI’s looked since its move to the FCS. All-around, it signified a change of heart for a program that’d been shrouded with concern.
“We’ve got something special here now,” Mason Petrino said. “You can feel it. You can feel the vibe, you can feel the swagger.”
Tackle Cancer — In pregame, Idaho commemorated former players Jace Malek and Collin Sather, and football operations director Mark Vaught, who all died of cancer in recent years. UI players and coaches said the win was in honor of the three.
“There was a bit of power out there from those guys today,” Paul Petrino said.
Clark may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.