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Saturday, April 4, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Blanchette: At the zero hour, Idaho defense puts one up

MOSCOW, Idaho – Before the Humanitarian Bowl went all wild-hairs-and- whoopie-cushions last December, Idaho coach Robb Akey had the play of the day – fixing his stare directly into the ESPN camera at halftime and commanding, “Watch the second half – you’re going to love it!”

He could have spent halftime Thursday night handing out similar assurances to the 11,466 at the Kibbie Dome, section by section.

Little to love up to that point. Much more afterward.

But then, that’s the way these things often go, full of halts and hiccups – season opener, playing at home, against a predictably overmatched opponent and with three months’ worth of expectation and possibility attached.

Not that the Vandals know all that much about it – this is was the first time in 13 years all those things had dovetailed on the same evening.

And the new – or rather, old – frontiers didn’t end there.

Would you believe a shutout?

Yes, the scoreboard read 45-0 when the Vandals finished with North Dakota, and as astonishing as that is for a team that gave up five touchdowns a game a year ago, perhaps more remarkable was the revelation after thumbing through the record book to find the last shutout – in 1997 – that there were two of them then, back to back.

Football shutouts rarely materialize here, much less mate.

“We understand a lot of people don’t respect our defense,” said safety Shiloh Keo, “and that pushes us, through practices and games. Especially the seniors – we talk a lot that we want to prove it, to the whole country, the WAC and everybody we play, that we’re a defense to be reckoned with.”

Well, the next reckoning is just around the corner – a week from Saturday at Nebraska. But of course, opponents like that one are what opponents like this one area for.

Indeed, no matter how many conference mates bail on them, the Vandals could have it worse. North Dakota is going to be out of a nickname in nine months – NCAA policy and tribal outcry forcing them to give up life as the Fighting Sioux. Luckily for Idaho, no more actual Vandals exist to exert any political pressure – that having peaked with the sack of Rome 1,500 years ago.

Meanwhile, the lame-duck Sioux have other problems. They have 15 starters back and yet took a bigger whipping in their body-bag game than they did a year ago against Texas Tech.

Whatever problems Idaho was experiencing in the first half, they were mostly on the offensive side of the ball. UND either went three-and-out or punted the first five times it had the ball.

“We were playing our tails off and then I think we got a little big-headed and they creased us a little bit,” said UI defensive coordinator Mark Criner. “But we did a good job in turnovers and making some picks and some big hits and that kind of saved us.”

True enough, even in throwing a zero up there, this was not necessarily a dominant defensive performance. Of UND’s five turnovers – one came on an onside kick to open the second half – three occurred inside the Idaho 25, including Keo’s interception on the 3-yard line.

“We had some of what I call ‘extra credit’ plays,” said Akey, “when we got backed up.”

The Vandals didn’t earn much extra credit a year ago – they were minus-8 in the turnover department. Takeaways can turn good defenses into great ones, but also the not-so-good into the nettlesome.

“I also think it shows they really have confidence in what they’re doing,” Criner said. “They’re playing fast, that’s what having confidence is. JoJo Dickson jumps a route down by the goal line. Shiloh’s playing fast and makes a big-time hit, boom, and there’s a dropped ball. Teams that play with confidence are the ones that create turnovers.”

And confidence can sometimes be the residue of numbers.

Criner knows the Vandals defense wilted down the stretch last season. There were some injuries, and a lot of his top-liners played on special teams – taking a further toll. Idaho lost four of its last five before the bowl delirium.

“Now we have a lot of returning starters, but we also have guys behind them,” he said. “There’s competition. We played six linebackers today, five safeties, four corners – when it was still a ballgame. Our corners are in a constant battle for playing time. We have safeties that can battle for nickel time. It builds excellence – kids have to work that much harder.

Noted Keo, “I know I can trust the second guy and third guy behind to make basic plays – and big plays.”

Who knows? Maybe this season Akey can advise everyone to watch the second half of the season – and that they’ll love it.

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