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Vandals season of promise starts against Montana State in Kibbie Dome

Tyler Bruggman, a transfer from Washington State, will start for Montana State on Thursday against the Vandals in the Kibbie Dome. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Tyler Bruggman, a transfer from Washington State, will start for Montana State on Thursday against the Vandals in the Kibbie Dome. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

MOSCOW – Kris Cinkovich senses a pattern with the Idaho Vandals, one he’s seen from other rise-from-the-ashes college football programs.

A new coach takes over a program that lost its way, and the first year “you get your (butts) kicked, period,” the Idaho offensive coordinator said.

“The second year you get beat, but you’re in some games,” he continued. “The third year you win some games, but you lose a couple close ones. And really it’s us to a T.”

The Vandals went from one win in each of coach Paul Petrino’s first two seasons to 4-8 last year, but they let at least two wins and a bowl bid slip away with poor execution in end-of-game situations.

Year 4 of Petrino’s tenure starts Thursday at 6 against Montana State at the Kibbie Dome, and Idaho coaches and players have made it clear: Anything less than a trip to the postseason would be an underachievement.

“Highest expectations we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said senior tight end Trent Cowan, who was part of Petrino’s first recruiting class in 2013. “The bar isn’t at six (wins); it’s at nine, 10. Ultimately, we want to win a bowl game, but we also want to win every single home game here at the Dome. And we also want to win the Sun Belt.”

Those are heady goals, but at least a 6-6 record seems possible for a couple of reasons.

First, redshirt junior quarterback Matt Linehan, who looked strong in fall camp after offseason foot surgery, will take snaps behind a veteran offensive line and throw to a remarkably deep receiving corps.

Second, the Vandals won’t play two of the projected top three Sun Belt teams, Arkansas State and Georgia Southern, because of the 11-team conference’s unbalanced schedule.

But with road games the next two weeks against two Pac-12 schools expected to have strong years – Washington and Washington State – the talk of a bowl game could be short-lived with a loss tonight.

Montana State, picked by Big Sky coaches to finish tied for seventh in the conference, will play its first game under coach Jeff Choate, who grew up in St. Maries and coached Post Falls High from 1997-2002. He was an assistant at WSU in 2012 and coached special teams and defensive line the last two years at UW.

Tyler Bruggman, who spent his first year out of prep school in Phoenix at Washington State before transferring, is the Bobcats’ starter. Petrino said he’s familiar with Bruggman after recruiting him while coaching at Arkansas.

Prepping for Montana State has been tricky because Choate and his coaching staff are new. The Vandals studied Bobcats games to understand the team’s personnel and tape from Montana and Indiana to familiarize themselves with MSU’s coordinators, Ty Gregorak and Courtney Messingham.

Gregorak was Montana’s defensive coordinator from 2012-2015 before moving to Bozeman when Choate took over.

“You feel like we’re playing the Grizzlies on defense because we’ve been watching so much of their tape,” Petrino said.

The Vandals’ health is better than it was 10 days ago, the coach said. One player questionable for tonight is linebacker Tony Lashley, who missed the bulk of last year and a good part of the preseason.

UI has depth at receiver, safety, and other positions to withstand injuries. But if Linehan goes down, they’ll have to rely on untested redshirt freshman Gunnar Amos or true freshman Mason Petrino.

With a healthy Linehan, Cinkovich said the Vandals have the offensive firepower to average 40 points per game – which would far surpass their average of 30.1 points last season and provide the type of progress in the program’s fourth year that the longtime assistant expects.

Going back to the year-by-year progression he’s witnessed and read about from other programs, Cinkovich said, “Now, the fourth year you make the next step, which means you win a bunch of games — and you win the close games. That to me in our progression is what we should expect to happen.”

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