October 4, 2009 in Sports

Vandals’ success illuminating

By The Spokesman-Review
 

MOSCOW, Idaho – The big revelation at the University of Idaho these days: There’s light at the end of the Quonset.

Naturally, just when the Vandals have a chance to let it shine in, along comes television to mandate a post-sundown kickoff.

“Like I had a choice,” said UI athletic director Rob Spear, laughing. “If ESPN tells us to start it at midnight, we start it at midnight.”

Well, better being TV’s toady than college football’s footwipe.

Whether it was ESPNU or ESPNXYZ, that the Vandals are interesting enough to be shown even on one of the Worldwide Leader’s JV channels suggests that there’s more light in the Kibbie Dome than what can shine in through the new translucent panels now adorning the west wall of the Palouse’s iconic barn.

The Vandals proved to be remarkably ready for prime time – and long after prime time, too, since their 31-29 shootout victory over Colorado State could barely be contained by parameters of Saturday night.

After a decade’s worth of foundering and false starts, the Vandals are manufacturing some genuine forward momentum, based not just on the three wins they managed in September for the first time since 1994 but incremental improvements not necessarily reflected in the standings.

•Coaching. After taking a flyer on two bloodline hires (Nick Holt and Dennis Erickson) who turned out to have no stomach for foundation-up building, Idaho landed on Robb Akey, assisting at Washington State just eight miles away. Neither a maniac nor a guru, Akey did come equipped with the hard butt necessary for discipline and some broad shoulders. If the school has the patience, he has the time.

•Facilities. It’ll be a while before the Vandals can do a dramatic makeover of the Dome, but they have splurged on things that will at least appeal to recruits: a weight room, locker rooms, practice turf, study areas.

•Scheduling sanity. Current Vandals might want to thank the players from the millennium turn for picking up the tab for the jump to big-boy football – for that’s when Idaho was playing as many as three and four payday games a season. The cash flow may not be as good now, but a better mix of Mountain West and MAC non-conference opponents at least gives the Vandals a chance.

“When you have a more competitive schedule, you’re able to generate some confidence for your team early on,” Spear said. “And, yes, it was nice to open on the road against a WAC opponent that just had a coaching change. But the point is, we’ve taken advantage of this schedule.”

And even before they took advantage of Saturday night’s opportunity, the possibilities were growing exceedingly bright.

The Western Athletic Conference has for the past few years fostered a tidy little caste system – the haves and the hapless. The early returns from 2009 suggest that the haves may not have so much, and the Vandals have evolved into something far from hapless.

The upshot is, a .500 finish in the league – never-never land since the long-ago Big West – is entirely fathomable. Last year, only one such team in the WAC – San Jose State – didn’t find a bowl looking for a lodger; five went to the postseason, and though the league has only three contracted tie-ups, there’s a bowl on almost every street corner that needs filling.

Sure, there are some chickens being counted here. We are talking about a football program that’s won just 19 percent of its games the previous eight years.

But we’re also talking about a team that hauled itself off the deck after spotting CSU a 14-0 lead, a circumstance helped along when quarterback Nathan Enderle threw an end-zone interception after a crisp Idaho drive to open the game. He bounced back to complete 11 of 13 passes in the third quarter when the Vandals took control, and watched happily when the defense turned back the potential tying two-point conversion in the last 101 seconds.

For a team that looked decidedly callow and mistake-prone the past two seasons, the Vandals have grown up seemingly overnight. They have developed playmakers – Enderle, receivers Max Komar and Eric Greenwood and WSU refugee DeMaundray Woolridge on offense, Shiloh Keo and Paul Senescall on “D” – and have what every team of any substance needs: a veteran, savvy offensive line.

They also have, well, precedent.

If there had been anything as dismal as Idaho football this past decade, it was Vandals basketball. But new coach Don Verlin managed to steer the Vandals into one of those just-add-water postseason tournaments last year, and a message was sent.

“That just said you can win at Idaho and have success,” Spear said. “When other programs are having success, I just think it raises the bar. There’s always a sense of urgency, but it just promotes a great internal competitiveness.”

Shines a light, if you will.


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