BOISE – The temperature at kickoff was 22 degrees, but it felt much colder inside Albertsons Stadium on Thursday night – the kind of cold that makes your fingers go numb in an instant.
No one looked more frozen than Idaho coach Paul Petrino. In the final minutes of a game that turned into national showcase for his program, Matt Linehan and Steven Matlock drenched Petrino with a bucket of yellow Gatorade.
He immediately seized his back, and for the rest of the night on Boise State’s famed blue turf that had become a hazardous sheet of ice, Petrino wore a white towel around his neck, Jerry Tarkanian-style.
He was ready to celebrate a 61-50 victory over Colorado State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl – and ready to change his pants.
“Let’s go get our trophy!” an impatient Petrino yelled to UI players while they reveled in the Vandals’ dominance with fans and family in the middle of the field.
Idaho, pegged as much as 16-point underdog by some Vegas oddsmakers, took it to the Rams of the Mountain West Conference with 24,975 on hand. It was an all-Vandals party from the second quarter on, and it played out in front of an ESPN audience.
Before Thursday, Idaho football was best known, at least recently, for becoming the first FBS school to decide to drop down to the FCS. The Big Sky Conference awaits the Vandals in 2018, but they made their case for why they can handle a higher-level of football under Petrino.
“We were 2-0 against the Mountain West this year,” the fourth-year coach said after changing into black sweats for his postgame news conference. “We’d look pretty good in that conference.”
The Vandals (9-4) rattled off 41 unanswered points in the second and third quarters to stake themselves to a 41-7 lead, and then withstood of flurry of meaningless CSU touchdowns.
Idaho set the record for the most points and most total yards (606) in the 20-year history of the Potato Bowl, which was previously known as the Humanitarian Bowl.
Game MVP Matt Linehan was brilliant in leading the Vandals. After a slow start, he finished 21-of-31 passing for 381 yards and four touchdowns. Running back Isaiah Saunders gobbled up 149 yards and three TDs on 33 carries.
“I think we responded really well to it,” Linehan said of the slow start. “We knew we could move the ball on these guys as long as we stayed patient and didn’t overreact to getting stalled out on the first couple drives. I think it turned out well for the offense.”
After punting on their first four possessions, Linehan and Vandals’ offense caught fire in frigid conditions. Down 7-0 early in the second quarter, Idaho went 65 yards for its first TD – a 2-yard Saunders run that was set up by a beautiful 38-yard down-the-sideline connection from Linehan to Watson.
Austin Rehkow missed the point-after attempt – his first missed PAT of the year – but the Vandals had found an offensive rhythm.
Linehan struck gold with another deep salvo on Idaho’s next possession, a 35-yarder to Alfonso Onunwor. On the next play, Saunders sprinted for a 21-yard TD run to make it 13-7.
Then came a crucial 18-play, 85-yard TD drive that took almost seven minutes of the clock before halftime. And after getting the ball to start the second half, the Vandals picked up right where they left off with another TD drive.
The Idaho defense, meanwhile, shut down CSU’s potent attack for most of the first three quarters. The Rams (7-6) didn’t appear comfortable on the slick surface until they started throwing deep late in the third quarter and throughout the final period.
“We were worried about the turf a little bit too much instead of playing ball,” CSU coach Mike Bobo said.
A key moment for Idaho’s defense came on the Rams’ first possession. CSU drove to Idaho’s 21, but on fourth-and-1, defensive tackle Arie Anderson stoned running back Izzy Matthews to force a turnover on downs.
“He tried to block me,” Anderson said, “but I was just quick enough to get off the ball and I came straight through the gap.”
During his on-the-field interview, Anderson was interrupted by a fan who wanted to let him know that “he was kind of a big deal.” That went for all the Vandals on this night.
Eventually, after Petrino’s coaxing, a mob of Vandals moved toward the stage to accept the bowl trophy filled with fake potatoes. Senior wide receiver Deon Watson grabbed one and put in his mouth. Athletic director Rob Spear embraced a few supporters. Players took selfies with fans.
It was a warm celebration on a cold night.
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