MOSCOW, Idaho – The Idaho team that had been expected to dominate Big Sky Conference competition in its return to the Football Championship Subdivision finally put in an appearance for homecoming.
The Vandals threatened several school records in rolling over Southern Utah 31-12 and improving to 3-4 overall, 2-3 in the Big Sky.
The Thunderbirds fell to 1-6, 1-3 in the league.
Cutrell Haywood accounted for the 11th three-touchdown game by a Vandals player, including the first since 2010, and Cade Coffey sent a punt soaring over returner Judd Cockett. The ball stopped rolling after 79 yards, on the 5-yard line, for the second-longest punt in Idaho history.
The Vandals’ defense held the Thunderbirds scoreless through three quarters before Austin Ewing pushed over a pair of touchdowns on short runs in the final period. But SUU failed on both 2-point conversions, and when Ewing, who led all rushers with 201 yards, took off on an 80-yard sprint down the sideline, Vandals cornerback Lloyd Hightower ran him down and forced a fumble at the 5-yard line that teammate Denzal Brantley recovered.
“I wasn’t going to give up,” Hightower said. “When I got closer, I saw the ball was rocking. ‘Well, shoot. Let me try to hit it out and tackle him at the same time.’ ”
Hightower had other highlights. He intercepted Aaron Zwahlen’s long throw to Ty Rutledge to end the Thunderbirds’ opening drive, and he leaped high to grab Zhawlen’s 2-point conversion attempt after Ewing’s first touchdown.
“It was great to see our defense flying around,” Idaho coach Paul Petrino said. “Both backs played well, and it was probably (quarterback) Mason (Petrino’s) best game.”
Freshman Tyrese Walker led the Vandals on the ground with 107 yards. Senior Isaiah Saunders was close behind with 92 yards rushing and a touchdown.
Mason Petrino played all but a handful of plays at quarterback. He rarely challenged the Thunderbirds deep but dissected them ruthlessly on short throws underneath the pass coverage. He completed 19 of 23 passes for 161 yards and the three touchdowns to Haywood.
“It was just good to see so many people making plays today,” Paul Petrino said.
Haywood got the Vandals on the scoreboard on their first possession. With Petrino scrambling, Haywood ran parallel with him in the end zone and made a sliding catch on a 4-yard toss.
Haywood made a 15-yard reception over the middle and fought his way over the goal line for his second score, and he grabbed an 18-yard throw in the corner of the end zone for the Vandals’ final touchdown.
The second touchdown was designed to be thrown either in the end zone or thrown away, both Petrinos said.
“Thank gosh Cutrell scored,” Mason said.
“He threw the ball to me. ‘Oh snap. I’ve got to score or he’s going to get in trouble,’ ” Haywood said he told himself. “I made one more person miss.”
Ewing came on in the second half. He wore a jersey with No. 87 instead of the No. 4 he has worn all year.
Ewing contributed the lion’s share of the Thunderbirds’ offense, but neither QB had success throwing against Idaho. Zwahlen was 8 of 18 with the two interceptions for 29 yards. Ewing was little better, hitting on 5 of 6 passes but for only 37 yards.
Jay Green rushed for 159 yards for the Thunderbirds. His effort did little to help SUU establish any offensive dominance. On back-to-back plays in the second half, Kaden Elliss knocked him down for no gain, and Christian Elliss upended him after a short pass reception. The linebacker brothers slapped hands.
“We made it a point to destroy them up front,” middle linebacker Christian said. “For three-quarters of the game, we smacked them. We did a good job getting on them.”
Christian was Idaho’s tackling leader with 13 overall, including one for loss. Brantley followed with 12 tackles, including two for loss to go with his fumble recovery.
Getting the running game going early and scoring a pair of touchdowns and a field goal in the first five possessions helped the Vandals’ offense immensely, Mason Petrino said. Finding Haywood duplicated the success he and Petrino have had in practice.
“It was about time,” Petrino said. “We had all those connections in the spring scrimmage.”
Petrino was also heartened by Idaho’s ability to keep the Thunderbirds from getting back into the game in the second half.
“We’re getting an identity how we’re going to wear people down and win,” he said.
The Vandals’ one-point loss to Montana State a week ago in part propelled their win over Southern Utah, Paul Petrino said.
“We played our hearts out at Montana State,” he said.
The big question was whether the Vandals would do it again after coming up short against the Bobcats, Petrino said. Apparently, they took what they learned in Bozeman and brought it home to Moscow for homecoming.
“Don’t be afraid to lay everything on the line. Give it all you got,” Petrino told his players.
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