MOSCOW, Idaho – With multiple heroes rising up at key moments, the Idaho Vandals got out to a 24-0 lead and withstood an Idaho State comeback to secure a 45-21 homecoming win, stop a three-game losing streak, and get their first Big Sky Conference victory.
“It feels great. Awesome. I expected us to play like that. Our guys …fight. They’re tough,” Idaho coach Paul Petrino said.
Led by Charles Akanno, who had a strip sack and fumble recovery in the first quarter, Idaho’s defense sent Bengals quarterback Matt Struck into halftime with a 13-of-24 passing line for 136 yards and an interception.
Senior cornerback Lloyd Hightower returned that interception 45 yards to give the Vandals a 14-0 lead. It was the first of Hightower’s two touchdowns.
The Bengals mounted a comeback, and Idaho’s lead had shrunk to 31-21 in the third quarter after Akanno was lost with an Achilles tendon injury at the end of the first half. Akanno’s replacement at buck linebacker, Leonick Tamba, caused a fumble that Hightower scooped up for his other score, a 49-yard return for a 38-21 lead.
“I saw the big bounce was coming. I thought, ‘I hope I don’t miss it,’ ” Hightower said.
“What a great day for Lloyd, huh? I couldn’t be happier,” Petrino said.
On the next series, UI free safety Sedrick Thomas returned a Struck interception 36 yards for a touchdown to establish the final score.
In his first start of the year, Vandals quarterback Colton Richardson, who had replaced injured starter Mason Petrino, completed 17 of 25 passes for 289 yards and a touchdown. Richardson also ran for Idaho’s first score, breaking the tackle of ISU linebacker Oshea Trujillo and dragging defensive back Christian McFarland 2 yards across the goal line.
UI’s Jeff Cotton had 10 catches for 192 yards and a touchdown in his return after missing a game with a leg injury. He and Richardson connected on nine throws for 174 yards and a score as Cotton took advantage of frequent man-to-man coverage. Following last year’s 62-28 loss to the Bengals, Cotton said the homecoming game was personal.
“It’s Week 7 or 8. We’ve all banged up,” Cotton said. “But there was no way I was going to miss this game.”
When Richardson went out with an ankle injury in the third quarter, Nikhil Nayar finished the game and completed 3 of 6 passes for 29 yards without an interception.
Nayar leaned heavily on leading rusher Dylan Thigpen, who gained 97 yards on 17 carries. Thigpen got 38 of those yards on six straight carries in a 6-minute drive that steadied Idaho’s offense midway through the fourth quarter.
“Thigpen ran his butt off on that drive,” Paul Petrino said.
“Don’t overlook the two lines,” he added, pointing to Tamba’s forced fumble on defense and offensive line blocking that gave Richardson ample time to scan receivers. “On a couple of those throws, it’s the most time we’ve had to throw in a long time.”
If Akanno is gone for the year because of his injury, three players will share the position – Tamba, Coleman Johnson and Theo Griffin.
“Charles is a wonderful young man. We wish him the best,” Paul Petrino said.
A season’s-largest homecoming crowd, announced at 10,361, also came in for praise.
“Our crowd was awesome,” Petrino said. “When our crowd was like that, it helps our players. Thank you, Vandal fans. They were awesome today.”
Idaho improved to 3-5, 1-3 in the Big Sky. The Bengals slipped to 3-4, 2-2.
Struck completed 27 of 52 passes for 316 yards with a pair of touchdowns and two interceptions. Mitch Gueller was ISU’s leading receiver with 11 catches for 166 yards and a score, and Malakai Rango ran for 61 yards and a touchdown on nine carries.
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