MOSCOW – Late into Thursday night’s season opener, the Idaho football team morphed into something that it didn’t expect to have to become.
Matt Linehan, betrayed by his arm, became almost exclusively a running quarterback. Idaho’s usually productive wideouts and tight ends became blockers first, receivers second. The offensive line and running backs, knowing the game was on them, coalesced.
And the Vandals’ defense stepped up in a way that coach Paul Petrino had yet to see in his four years in Moscow.
Idaho turned in a gritty second-half performance to hold off Montana State 20-17 in front of 11,987 at the Kibbie Dome.
The Vandals (1-0) got 17 passing yards in the second half from quarterback Matt Linehan, but they rode tailback Aaron Duckworth and their defense to their first season-opening win since 2010.
“I told them afterwards, ‘Really how you won today’s game is how they always say you win championships: great defense and run the ball,’” Petrino said. “And that was the two things we did. It wasn’t as flashy and as great as I like to see it sometimes, but the way we won the game was defense and running the ball, and that’s how you’ve got to win some hard-fought, tough games.”
Midway through the second quarter, Linehan muscled a pass through traffic over the middle and into Trent Cowan’s hands. At that point, the redshirt junior who’s expected to have a big year was 5-of-10 passing – not what he was hoping for, but nothing to be to concerned about, either.
Besides, Idaho was up by 10 points, moving deeper into Montana State territory and ready to slam the door on the Bobcats, its future Big Sky rival. But Linehan’s next pass landed in front of his intended receiver, Duckworth, and the rest of Thursday night was a slog.
Linehan finished 8-of-22 passing for 128 yards and one interception. He completed just two passes in the second half. UI receivers dropped a few passes, but Linehan took the blame.
“Really it starts with me,” he said. “I’ve got to be accurate and hit those guys when we need to hit them, especially on those easy passes. I’ve got to look myself in the mirror and move on from it and get ready for next week. Simple as that.”
With the passing game stalled, the Vandals churned out 225 rushing yards. Duckworth had 108 yards and two touchdowns – both in the first quarter – on 14 carries. Linehan also contributed a couple of key late runs and finished with 41 yards on the ground.
“It feels great,” said Duckworth, a junior who had his first career 100-yard rushing game. “I’ve been dreaming about this for a while.”
The Vandals looked poised to run away from Montana State as the first quarter wound down. Down 10-7, they produced two quick-strike touchdown drives – sandwiched between an interception from Russell Siavii – in a four-minute span.
As the offense started to show its explosiveness, the Idaho defense stiffened. After Siavii picked off Tyler Bruggman, the Vandals forced consecutive punts thanks to good pressure from defensive end Aikeem Coleman and heady plays from linebacker Tony Lashley.
UI, though, failed to cash in on the long drive that started Linehan’s real struggles, settling for a 34-yard Austin Rehkow field goal to go up 20-7. After that, the Vandals offense went into hibernation.
That’s also about the time the Bobcats’ bruising running back, Chad Newell, started to wear down Idaho. He finished with 105 yards and a touchdown, but only 32 of those came in the second half.
Lashley said the Vandals made a key second-half adjustment to limit Newell and MSU’s running game. When asked about it, Petrino said with a laugh, “We’ll just try to keep that to our ourselves.”
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