MOSCOW, Idaho — Early in the fourth quarter on Saturday afternoon, what seemed improbable started to unfold in front of some 10,000 astonished Idaho fans at the Kibbie Dome.
The Vandals had forged a tie with a team that was favored by 29 points. Then they coaxed a quick punt from Northern Illinois and found themselves with the ball and a chance to grab the lead.
And that’s when running back James Baker, who had played splendidly for three-plus quarters, fumbled.
The Huskies recovered and on their next two possessions scored 10 points to separate from Idaho and secure a 45-35 victory.
The loss dropped Idaho to 0-3 in coach Paul Petrino’s first season. But this one felt different than the first two weeks.
“It means a lot,” Baker said. “It’s just progress.”
After shaking hands with NIU coach Rod Carey, Petrino trailed the game officials toward the far Kibbie Dome tunnel, pleading his case for something he wouldn’t talk about afterward. But he did give the media an emotion-filled explanation of what went wrong – and what the Vandals have to do to start winning.
“We showed a great improvement, but we’ve got to a ways to go still to be tough enough and have enough courage to fight through the whole thing and find a way to win,” said Petrino, who got more intense and animated as he spoke.
Later, he emphasized his point even more vividly: “We’re getting better every week and I’m happy with that we’re getting better. But just pull out a gun and shoot me in the head if I’m ever happy with freaking losing.”
In its last two games, Northen Illinois (2-0) had won at Iowa and played Florida State in the Orange Bowl. The Vandals, meanwhile, had been poleaxed by North Texas and Wyoming to start 2013.
Yet Idaho, spearheaded by quarterbacks Chad Chalich and Josh McCain and an offense that churned out 191 rushing yards, was the crisper and more efficient team for much of Saturday.
The Vandals exploded for four touchdowns in the first 20 minutes – after registering two TDs in the first two weeks – and twice had 14-point leads in the first half.
But NIU’s defensive front took over in the second half. Led by defensive end Perez Ford, the Huskies rang up nine sacks and forced three fumbles.
Decorated senior quarterback Jordan Lynch collected 311 total yards (159 rushing, 152 passing) and accounted for five touchdowns. Still, the Idaho defense was resourceful at times and stout during stretches.
Idaho twice stood up to NIU to force field goal attempts, one of which the Huskies missed, and recovered two fumbles to stay within range.
“What I want one of the goals to be,” Petrino said, “is that when the team gets on the bus and pulls out of here that they’re like, ‘That is a hard-hitting team. I’m a sore hombre right now. I don’t like playing Idaho. Those guys just hit me and hit me and hit me and hit me.’
“And I think a few of those (players) will be filling that today. I really do.”
NOTES – The announced crowd was 14,071 but appeared considerably smaller. Idaho safety Trey Williams (undisclosed injury) left the game in the first half and didn’t return. Defensive end Quinton Bradley (shoulder) left in the fourth quarter.