MOSCOW, Idaho – The defining feature of the 2016 Idaho Vandals won’t be their many receiving options or their rejuvenated defensive line. It won’t be Isaiah Saunders and Aaron Duckworth asserting themselves as workhorse running backs at different parts of the year.
All of that and more have helped Idaho craft its best season in nearly 20 years. But these Vandals will be remembered for breathing life into a beleaguered program by playing their best in the tensest of moments.
On Saturday, Idaho again stayed cool with the game on the line, batting down the University of South Alabama’s Hail Mary attempt as time expired in a 38-31 triumph at the Kibbie Dome.
A post-Thanksgiving crowd of around 7,000 watched the Vandals (7-4, 5-2) collect their third straight win and fifth victory in six games. They’re 5-0 in games decided by 10 points or less and have come up clutch late in the fourth quarter and overtime in one-score games four times this season.
UI closes out the regular season by hosting Georgia State at 2 p.m. on Saturday. A victory would give the Vandals eight wins, their most before a bowl since 1998.
“We’ve all been through some tough times together, and I think the more tough times that you’ve went through, it makes you tougher,” said coach Paul Petrino, whose team lost 29 games the previous three seasons.
“Iron sharpens iron and we’ve gotten struck by iron enough times. So we’re a pretty darn tough team right now.”
One game after becoming bowl-eligible, the Vandals showed their resolve during a South Alabama comeback attempt set up by a mistake from UI quarterback Matt Linehan.
After Saunders punctuated consecutive drives with touchdown runs – part of a career-best 142-yard, three-TD day for the sophomore – the Vandals forced a punt early in the fourth quarter. But on UI’s first play after getting the ball back, Linehan rolled left and flung a dangerous pass across the field intended for Deon Watson.
South Alabama’s Jalen Thompson made a diving grab for his second interception. It was Linehan’s third pick of the day, and it gave the Jaguars the ball at the Idaho 37 trailing 38-28.
“It was a mistake,” Linehan said. “… As a quarterback it’s something that you learn from Day One that you really shouldn’t do it. You don’t throw across the field late.”
South Alabama (5-6, 1-6) drove to the 10, but on third down Idaho linebacker Ed Hall came free on a blitz and sacked Dallas Davis to force a field goal that cut UI’s lead to 38-31.
The Jaguars got the ball back with 2:08 remaining after Austin Rehkow lofted a punt that Kendrick Trotter downed at the 4. Davis completed five passes to get the Jags to the Idaho 33 before being called for intentional grounding.
After a 14-yard completion, South Alabama faced a fourth down at the 33 with 6 seconds left. Davis launched a desperation heave toward the back of the end zone that safety Russell Siavii knocked down.
Coming through late in games is “something we’ve done and we know how to handle it,” said Linehan, noting the confidence that UI got by winning at UNLV in overtime in the fourth week of the season. “And I think the defense understood the situation and they held on.”
Said Petrino: “You get really nervous (in those situations), but I do believe that our kids have bought in.”
In addition to Saunders’ career day on the ground, Idaho wide receiver Callen Hightower finished with five catches for 111 yards and a touchdown. Fellow wideout Jordan Frysinger had four catches, two of which came on third-and-longs that kept drives going.
“We knew this would be a tough game out here,” South Alabama coach Joey Jones said. “(We) played a very good football team. I think they’re one of the most improved teams in this league. My hat’s off to them.”
South Alabama senior right guard Steven Foster left the game in an ambulance after breaking a bone in his leg, Jones said. The game was delayed around 10 minutes while Foster was placed on a stretcher and into the ambulance. … Idaho defensive end Aikeem Coleman played limited snaps after getting dinged up at Texas State. … Petrino said Idaho defensive line coach Kenny Holmes hasn’t informed him that he’s taking the same job at Florida International, as was reported on Friday. “Reports come out on that stuff a lot and it doesn’t mean it can’t end up being true, but as of right now, he’s not told me he’s been offered a job there,” Petrino said.
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