Five-and-one, perched atop the Western Athletic Conference standings, a first-time vote in a regular-season football poll and on the brink of bowl eligibility – the insanity continues at the University of Idaho.
And the happiest development?
As Robb Akey urges and abets the once-beleaguered Vandals votary to go ahead and surrender his head to this overnight sensation, the coach is resolutely keeping his. For instance: Trailing San Jose State 25-22 last Saturday and having seen his quarterback, Nathan Enderle, just kill two possessions with interceptions, Akey turned to backup Brian Reader “because we needed a little charge.” Reader threw just one pass for 11 yards, but handed off without incident to the Vandals’ do-re-mi backs, Princeton McCarty, Deonte Jackson and DeMaundray Woolridge, and in five easy minutes the Vandals had the get-back-ahead touchdown and their fifth victory.
Because any conclusion worth reaching is worth jumping to, there were immediate questions whether Reader would displace Enderle in the starting lineup. Akey quite correctly reaffirmed the status quo. After all, Enderle was not only 5-1 as a starter this year, but had earned every consideration during the two years of lump-taking that prefaced all this.
“Human nature,” Akey said. “People want to see some controversy, and they love seeing it at the quarterback position.”
But more remarkable was Akey’s call to yank his starter at crunch time, without the presumption all too common even among the headset set that it would destroy Enderle’s self-esteem and render him worthless.
“That idea is certainly out there,” Akey acknowledged. “As coaches, we’ve seen it, looked at it, worried, ‘What will it do to that guy?’ We don’t worry about the left guard if we pull him out of there.”
Well, because quarterbacks are more important, simply put. But somewhere along the line, it’s been decided that they’re as fragile emotionally as pop divas. It was never more maddening hereabouts than at that other school on the Palouse during the Alex Brink years, when there were a handful of occasions that screamed for a – temporary – change of pace.
It doesn’t undermine leadership; it creates more leaders.
“The thing about Nate, he was upset at the way he played – not that we put a different quarterback in,” Akey said. “And it showed our guys that it’s a team game – and it was a team win.”
One more team win and the Vandals – home in the Kibbie Dome on Saturday against Hawaii, another WAC opponent they’ve never beaten – will be numerically qualified to accept a bowl invitation, with no guarantee yet of getting one. This is the sort of talk that drives most football coaches crazy.
Akey embraces it, bringing up the subject of “the magic number” himself.
“Some folks, to talk about the things you want to be able to do with a football team, is voodoo,” he said. “They don’t like to get in front of that. I certainly want to keep our focus – that’s what got us to this point. But these guys need to enjoy college football, too. The outside world is finally telling them ‘Good job’ and patting them on the back, and I want them to be able to feel good about that. We can openly talk about a goal of getting to a bowl game. Let’s talk about winning the WAC championship.
“Now, what’s going to give us a chance is making sure we give all our attention to Hawaii, and understanding and fixing the things that almost got our tails beat by San Jose State.”
This is part of Akey’s thrill – that the Vandals have not gone on this ride playing over their heads. They’ve beaten some good mid-level teams despite some hiccups in all three phases of the game, managing to conjure up a drive or make a fourth-down stop or deny a two-point conversion at defining moments. The incremental gains Akey sees he also saw a year ago when the Vandals were 1-6 at this juncture, “when the hardest thing in the world was looking them in the eye on Sunday when they weren’t getting the payoff for all their work.”
The grim times are still too vivid for the Vandals to be too full of themselves now. In the tumult after beating Colorado State two weeks ago, a voice headed for the locker room could be heard saying, “Hey, we are for real.”
“The outside world didn’t give them a fighting chance to get anything accomplished,” Akey reasoned. “Because that’s what they heard before, they can’t help but believe it. But I think they’re starting to believe differently.”