MOSCOW, Idaho – The football losses may have piled up like leaves under an autumn maple at the University of Idaho, but there are happy hangovers in the tailgate lot today.
And this new streak to chew on: Chad Chalich is 2-0 at homecoming.
Last year’s starting quarterback was Saturday’s steady relief, steering the Vandals to a 29-17 victory over New Mexico State that snapped a 13-game losing streak – the longest in FBS – in front of an announced crowd of 15,207 at the Kibbie Dome.
And shedding the weighty bummer seemed to put as much of a bounce in the Vandals’ step after the game as they had during a pretty bouncy performance.
“It makes everything easier,” said coach Paul Petrino. “It makes just fricking walking out of this building easier.”
But even this first win of 2014 didn’t come easy. In fact, it came scary.
The major fright occurred not four minutes into the game on a brisk Idaho drive, when starting quarterback Matt Linehan aborted a pass call and broke up the middle. He covered 12 yards before going into his safety slide, only to absorb a wicked crack – late and to the head – from the Aggies’ Kawe Johnson.
Johnson was ejected. Linehan was done for the day. The Vandals were, well, angry.
“A cheap shot,” said center Mike Marboe.
Chalich, whose only action this season came in four end-of-game snaps last week at Georgia Southern, finished off the drive, the Vandals scoring on Richard Montgomery’s 4-yard dash to the corner. And eventually, he helped finish off the Aggies with his arm (192 yards and a touchdown), legs (73 yards rushing) and courage. Because each of his 11 runs ended with a slide like the one on which Linehan was knocked from the game.
“It stays in the back of your mind,” he admitted.
A sophomore from Coeur d’Alene, Chalich started seven games a year ago, including a 26-24 homecoming victory over Temple. But Petrino believes his success Saturday had as much to do with his approach to his new role.
“I told him between drives, ‘You’re going to play great today because you’ve stayed with a great attitude – you’ve always stayed positive and always stayed learning,’” Petrino said. “You’ve got to love him for that. Some other people might be mad, but he’s never shown it.”
And it didn’t hurt that he had help – a team’s worth.
On offense, the line kept Chalich off his back (just one sack) and created nice creases for Jerrel Brown, whose strong running produced 151 yards and his first Vandal touchdown. And Josh McCain was remarkable – 11 receptions for 139 yards, a slew of those coming after the catch. The jewel was a 49-yard streak down the sideline, toasting NMSU corner Winston Rose for the first-quarter touchdown that gave Idaho the lead for good.
Meanwhile, Idaho’s defensive line made life miserable for the Aggies’ first-time starting quarterback, Andrew Allen, and the secondary zeroed in on the Sun Belt’s leading receiver. Teldrick Morgan touched the ball once all day – on a run that netted minus two yards.
“Double him sometimes, press him a little, off a little,” said Joe Smith, who along with safety Bradley Njoku seemed to line up across from Morgan the most. “They’re not much of a long-ball team, so we tried to take away his short routes.”
Or just take away period. When the offense sputtered in the second half and the Vandals had to settle for field goals – three on the day by Austin Rehkow – Njoku came up with one interception and Jayshawn Jordan two, one a wonderful hot-potato pick he wound up making on his back. That snuffed NMSU’s hopes after the Aggies switched back to primary starting quarterback Tyler Rogers and cut Idaho’s lead to 23-17.
“I was scared at one point that we were screwing this thing up because we were dominating so much and we weren’t ahead enough,” said Petrino, whose Vandals had 20 more first downs, 17 more minutes of possession time and a 536-314 yardage edge.
With the nation’s longest losing streak passed on to SMU (now at eight), the Vandals get some good vibes to carry them into a bye week and another home date Nov. 1 against Arkansas State.
“Finally, everybody’s smiling,” Smith said. “It’s a weight off everybody’s shoulders – players, coaches, team, fans.”
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