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Idaho heads into rivalry showdown against Montana clinging to FCS playoff hopes

Idaho wide receiver Michael Noil (2) celebrates after the Vandals defeated Idaho State on Oct. 19, 2019, in Moscow, Idaho. (University of Idaho / Courtesy)
Idaho wide receiver Michael Noil (2) celebrates after the Vandals defeated Idaho State on Oct. 19, 2019, in Moscow, Idaho. (University of Idaho / Courtesy)

MOSCOW, Idaho – Idaho’s season has led to this. Losses in winnable games against Northern Colorado and Portland State have left the Vandals without a cushion if they have any hope of making the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

However, back-to-back wins against Idaho State and Cal Poly have given Idaho (4-5, 2-3 in the Big Sky Conference) reason to believe it might still catch lightning in a bottle.

So, against a longstanding rival playing in perhaps the premier venue in all FCS football in Washington-Grizzly Stadium, the Vandals’ hopes for the postseason hinge upon them pulling an upset against sixth-ranked Montana (7-2, 4-1) on the way to winning their final three games.

Montana’s offense starts with two capable quarterbacks. Senior Dalton Sneed has thrown for 2,019 yards in seven games, with 15 touchdowns against six interceptions. But Sneed was injured the past two weeks.

In his place, in wins against Eastern Washington and Portland State, Cameron Humphrey contributed 41 completions in 57 attempts for 281 yards and five touchdowns without an interception, including four TDs against PSU.

Idaho coach Paul Petrino said at midweek he did not know which Griz quarterback the Vandals will see.

Whoever is throwing will have big play targets. Samori Toure has 46 receptions for 730 yards and six touchdowns. Jerry Louie-McGee, from Coeur d’Alene’s Lake City High School, has 48 receptions for 418 yards and three touchdowns; 23 punt returns for 201 yards and a touchdown; and has rushed for 99 yards and a score. Samuel Akem has 56 receptions for 822 yards and five touchdowns.

When the Grizzlies run, they turn to Marcus Knight. He picked up 106 yards on the ground and scored a touchdown against PSU.

Petrino said Idaho will have to bring pressure to slow Montana’s offense.

“If we let them sit back there all day to throw, that’s not going to be good for us,” he said. “We’ve got to make the quarterback have a clock, get the ball out of his hands.”

Idaho’s defense has risen to the challenge. The Vandals lost their best defensive player, Charles Akanno, to a season-ending injury against Idaho State, But they have received great relief from his replacement at defensive end, Leonick Tamba, who had 7 1/2 tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble in the Vandals’ last three games.

Linebackers Tre Walker (103 tackles, 7 1/2 for loss and 1 1/2 sacks) and Christian Elliss (68 tackles, 10 for loss and three sacks) are starring. In the secondary, senior cornerback Lloyd Hightower is having a career year with a fumble recovery returned for a score against Idaho State and interceptions against both the Bengals and Cal Poly.

“We’ve worked on a lot of stuff for them that is totally different than what we’ve done all year,” Petrino said about this week’s preparation.

Senior Jeff Cotton has been Idaho’s go-to on offense with 64 receptions for 813 and five touchdowns. He has benefited from frequent single coverage, but Petrino expects the Grizzlies to drop eight defenders into pass coverage.

Idaho also brings a top-flight running game to Missoula, led by Aundre Carter, who has rushed for 557 yards and seven touchdowns this season, on 5.8 yards per carry. He ran for 179 yards and two scored against Cal Poly.

Petrino also anticipates Montana will be more physical than cute in its schemes against the Vandals

“Kids growing up in that state love to play football,” Petrino said. “They love to be physical. Those kids grow up liking to hit.”

“They’re not really trying to fool you. They just do what they do best,” Idaho center Logan Floyd said of the Grizzlies.

With everything on the line against the Grizzlies, Idaho may carry that attitude with it across the Bitterroot Mountains.

“I’m just ready to play football,” Tamba said.

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