Looking like a running back from the past, the Idaho Vandals got a glimpse of the future on Saturday.
Wearing the No. 32 of former Idaho standout Sherridan May, true freshman Jerome Thomas ran for 128 yards on 32 carries and caught three passes for 58 yards, leading the Vandals to a 16-12 victory over 15th-ranked Northern Iowa before a sold-out crowd of more than 16,000 at the UNI Dome.
It was just the second home regularseason loss for the Panthers in the UNI Dome. They had won 36 of their last 37 regular-season games dating back to the 1989 season. The only previous defeat came to current No. 1-ranked McNeese State last season.
Thomas became Idaho’s third starter of the year at running back when senior Lavoni Kidd could not play because of an injured ankle.
“Jerome did not play like a freshman today,” said Idaho quarterback Eric Hisaw. “He played his butt off for us.”
Idaho got a solid effort from another true freshman, wide receiver Yaphet Warren, had four catches for 62 yards.
“Jerome Thomas and Yaphet Warren came in and had clutch efforts,” said Idaho coach Chris Tormey. “Obviously we couldn’t come in and throw the ball every down and Jerome came in and did the job.”
Thomas even surprised himself.
“It was pretty funny. Being a true freshman, I knew the coaches expected me to play well, but not really well. If I didn’t play well then it wouldn’t be a surprise. If I did play well they’d be shocked.”
The victory improved Idaho to 5-4 and marked the second straight win on the road for the Vandals over a nationally ranked team.
Northern Iowa lost for the second consecutive week and dropped to 6-4.
“This team has a lot of character,” Tormey said of his Vandals. “We’ve had to play with some young guys and they have come in and done the job.”
As well as the young offensive players played, Idaho’s stingy defense was even better. It recorded six sacks, picked off three passes and recovered two fumbles while holding the Panthers to just 229 total yards. The Vandals held the nation’s second-ranked I-AA passer, Chris Berg, to just 8 of 26 passing and three interceptions.
“Obviously the defense played very, very well,” said Tormey. “Offensively we moved the ball well. We ate up the clock and drove up and down the field.”
The lead changed hands five times in the game before kicker Ryan Woolverton, who booted three second-half field goals, nailed a 25-yarder to give Idaho a 13-12 lead and later added a 37-yarder with 2:39 remaining to seal the win.
The Idaho offense managed 355 total yards, outgained the Panthers 147 to 38 on the ground and had the ball more than 36 minutes compared to just 23 for Northern Iowa. Eleven of the Vandals’ 16 drives ended in Panthers’ territory.
“We got a little frustrated getting inside the 20 so many times and having to settle for field goals,” said Hisaw.
Hisaw finished 16 of 34 for 208 yards and two interceptions.
Saturday’s win also marked the second consecutive week that Idaho had overcome a fourth-quarter deficit on the road to win.
Sophomore defensive tackle Tim Wilson had three of Idaho’s six sacks and recovered a key fumble that set up Woolverton’s final field goal.
“We knew we had to step it up again tonight,” said Wilson. “I think it was the new white shoes. I had worn them in practice, but never in a game.”
With Idaho clinging to a 13-12 lead, Northern Iowa moved the ball to the Vandals’ 18-yard line after a 74-yard pass completion from Berg to Dedric Ward.
But Idaho’s defense stuffed the Panthers on three straight plays, and kicker Matt Waller missed a 35-yarder with 8:50 remaining that would have given Northern Iowa the lead. Waller had made two earlier field goals of 40 and 49 yards.
Northern Iowa started it next possession on the 17 with 4-1/2 minutes left, but Barry Mitchell stripped a scrambling Berg of the football and Wilson recovered at the Panthers’ 21 with 3:45 left. Three plays later, Woolverton drilled his final field goal.
Northern Arizona’s final possession stalled when Antoine Chambers intercepted Berg’s desperation fourth-down pass.
The Vandals opened the second half by driving 59 yards on 10 plays with Woolverton giving Idaho a 10-9 lead with a 33-yard field goal.
The two teams traded turnovers in the third quarter. Eric Hisaw’s pass went through David Griffin’s hands and was intercepted by Panthers linebacker Kevin Hammond at the Vandals’ 38. Berg tried to take advantage, but his first pass was intercepted by Jason O’Neil at the 8.
Northern Iowa reclaimed the lead after Idaho punted on Waller’s 49-yard field goal with just less than 5 minutes left in the third quarter.
The drive was aided by a 15-yard line late hit call on the Vandals defense and the Panthers led 12-10.
Much like last week’s game at Northern Arizona, Idaho dominated for much of the first half, only to trail at halftime.
Northern Iowa opened the scoring with a 40-yard field goal by Waller with 8:51 left in the first.
The Vandals came right back and drove 65 yards in seven plays down to the Panthers’ 3. But on third and goal, Eric Hisaw threw a pass toward Ryan Smith in the end zone. Smith tripped, fell down and Panthers cornerback Tyree Talton intercepted the pass in the end zone.
The Vandals answered when Tommy James intercepted a Berg pass at the Panthers’ 35 and returned it to the 29-yard line.
On the next play, Thomas caught a swing pass from Hisaw and took it down to the Panthers’ 9. The drive stalled and Woolverton missed a 25-yard field goal. However, Northern Iowa was called for roughing the kicker and Idaho got the ball back at the Panthers’ 6. Running back Dave Longoria plunged in from the 1 two plays later for his third TD of the season.
Idaho’s defense came up with three first-quarter sacks - one each by Ryan Phillips, Barry Mitchell and Wilson - and never let Berg into a rhythm.
The Panthers had just 35 yards on their first 21 plays from scrimmage before putting together an eight-play, 88-yard scoring drive, capped by Berg’s 33-yard touchdown pass to Alonzo Clayton. Berg, who had completed just three of his first ten passes, was flawless on the drive, completing all four passes for 66 yards.
Idaho 16, N. Iowa 12
Idaho 7 0 3 6 - 16
N. Iowa 3 6 3 0 - 12
UNIFG 40 Waller
UI-Longoria 1 run (Woolverton kick)
UNIClayton 33 pass from Berg (kick blocked)
UI-FG 38 Woolverton
UNIFG 49 Waller
UI-FG 25 Woolverton
UI-FG 37 Woolverton
UI UNI First downs 20 10 Rushes-yards 45-137 31-34 Passing yards 210 193 Rturn yards 120 121 Passes 16-34-2 8-26-3 Punts 7-38 6-37 Fumbles-lost 1-1 3-2 Penalties-yards 9-72 8-58 Time of Possession 36:50 23:10
RUSHING Idaho, Thomas 30-122, Hisaw 14-14, Longonia 1-1. N. Iowa, Porter 11-32, Stovall 10-11, Berg 10-(minus 9).
PASSING Idaho, Hisaw 16-34-2 210. N. Iowa, Berg 8-26-3 193.
RECEIVING Idaho, Warren 4-65, Thomas 3-57, Scott 6-48, Griffin 2-28, McKinzie 1-12. N. Iowa, Ward 3-107, Clayton 2-42, Kothe 1-17, Porter 1-16, Taylor 1-11.
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.