BOISE – Deonte Jackson has been in the University of Idaho football program long enough to be able to put 2009 in context. He’s seen the damage caused by coaching upheaval. He’s been through seasons where any victory seemed like a minor miracle.
Up until this fall, it all looked so hopeless – which, of course, makes today’s appearance in the Humanitarian Bowl that much more satisfying for veterans like Jackson.
Clearly, though, just getting to Bronco Stadium’s blue turf isn’t enough.
“To make it is a great accomplishment, but to win it would just be like the exclamation point on the season,” said Jackson, a junior tailback. “It’s tremendous. It’s a real big thing for everyone involved in this program, this school.”
Idaho (7-5) hopes to cap what’s been a stirring season with a win in Boise over Bowling Green, a Mid-American Conference member from Ohio.
The Vandals’ first postseason action since winning this same bowl in 1998 comes three years and 10 days after Akey was hired away from Washington State. The first two seasons of his tenure were rocky at best; UI went 3-21 with just one Western Athletic Conference conquest.
But somewhere along the way, something clicked. Players stopped bickering, talent started to trickle in and the coaching staff stopped its usual offseason shuffle.
The stability and chemistry have helped Idaho notch five more wins than last year.
Still, the Vandals come into today trying to expunge unpleasant memories from the past month-plus of the season.
They lost four of their last five games and were forced to wait longer than they would have liked to get an invite to the H-Bowl. The latter portion of the season came in sharp contrast to September and October, when the Vandals rocketed to a five-game winning streak and a 6-1 record.
How do they rediscover their early October form?
“I think we need to just start early,” quarterback Nathan Enderle said. “We had some come-from-behind games, but you don’t want to force yourself to do that because it’s difficult.”
In the last five weeks of the season, Idaho was outscored 94-21 in the first quarter. UI’s only win in that stretch came against Louisiana Tech when it erased a 13-point deficit in the last 6 minutes.
While most of the blame for the poor starts has gone to Idaho’s 105th-ranked defense, Enderle sees things differently.
“First and second quarter, we’re just not scoring enough points,” he said. “You can’t go into halftime down by two touchdowns and expect to win every game. So we really need to stay away from that.”
Like Idaho, Bowling Green is 7-5 and comes into the game with questions on defense. But the Falcons also have the offensive prowess to make for what could be an entertaining show.
BGSU has the eighth-ranked passing offense in the county – three spots ahead of Idaho. Most of its aerial salvos have come via quarterback Tyler Sheehan connections to All-America receiver Freddie Barnes. The 6-foot senior needs just five catches to set an NCAA single-season record with 143 receptions.
Barnes is likely to get a bucketful of catches today, but Idaho coach Robb Akey is more concerned with pressuring Sheehan and keeping BGSU’s big plays to a manageable amount.
“If you’re playing a passing team, the more you can get out of your pass rush, the more effective it’s going to be,” Akey said.