MOSCOW, Idaho – Maybe this was to be expected for a weeknight season opener. Penalties, bungled assignments, miscommunication – all came in bunches for the University of Idaho on Thursday night.
But here’s what definitely was not expected: Most of the messy play came when the Vandals had the ball.
The UI defense sparkled against severely overmatched North Dakota, forcing four turnovers in a 45-0 romp – the program’s first shutout since 1997.
This was the Vandals’ second matchup with the Fighting Sioux – the first came in 1954 – and both games ended in 45-0 Idaho wins.
“It’s nice to (have) another warmup game,” UI coach Robb Akey said with a smile.
He quickly said he was only joking. Yet his club faces a major upgrade in competition next weekend, when it treks to No. 8 Nebraska.
Idaho’s debut, watched by 11,466 at the Kibbie Dome, wasn’t nearly as crisp as Akey would have liked it, particularly in the opening half. UI was penalized 12 times – three on procedure calls against wideouts Eric Greenwood and Preston Davis – while the newly constructed offensive line gave up first-half four sacks.
But Idaho’s rejuvenated defense forced two early turnovers to swing the momentum in its favor. The first was a JoJo Dickson interception of Jake Landry that Dickson almost returned for a touchdown.
On the next play, Princeton McCarty punched in a 5-yard run for the Vandals’ first TD.
“It felt OK,” quarterback Nathan Enderle said of the offensive performance. “We have some stuff to clean up. Protections and stuff like that. It was a typical first game.”
Enderle was pulled with a few minutes left in the third quarter, but still finished with 311 yards on 24-of-37 passing. He threw a 44-yard laser to Justin Veltung down the sideline to push UI’s lead to 17-0, and added a 2-yard touchdown pass to Greenwood in the third period.
After a sleepy second quarter in particular, Akey lashed out at the Vandals during halftime. Then to energize the team, he called for an onside kick to start the second half.
UND was caught off guard, and Greenwood managed to haul in Trey Farquhar’s kick as he side-stepped out of bounds.
“I felt like a ballerina out there,” Greenwood said.
Immediately, the Vandals’ offense came to life. Enderle found Daniel Hardy for a 32-yard connection before completing two more passes to move Idaho inside the 10.
Troy Vital capped the drive with a 1-yard leap over the pile for a TD.
“I think I was sending a message to them,” Akey said. “We said we’re going to play as fast as we can, as hard as we can, as long as we can – and that’s the whole dadgum game. And I didn’t like the way we were playing at the end of the half.
“If I’ve got to set the tempo for tempo, I’m going to set the tempo for them.”
The UI defense, a major liability in previous years, showed the same improvement as it had throughout fall camp. It yielded just 270 yards to North Dakota – in its third year as an FCS team – while rotating a mass of bodies through the front seven.
Senior safety Shiloh Keo played a key part. He came up with an interception near the goal line to help preserve the shutout and forced a fumble.
“It feels great,” he said. “We’ve still got a long ways to go. There were little mistakes out there. (But) we understand this could be a good defense, a great defense.”