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John Blanchette: Mason Petrino kicks up heels in Idaho’s defining win over Eastern Washington

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 21, 2019, 8:25 p.m.

MOSCOW, Idaho – The flag – 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct – came after his 20-yard run that pushed Idaho’s lead to four touchdowns and Mason Petrino was contrite.

Well, kind of.

“I high-stepped like two times,” the Vandals’ senior quarterback said. “I didn’t think they’d be looking.”

On the sidelines, counsel was handy in the form of his predecessor – except that the sight of Matt Linehan sent Petrino down the rabbit hole of “When Justice Fails.”

“I said, ‘How many times did you get a celebration (call)?’ ” Petrino recalled. ‘ “You literally acted like you bowled (the football) against Texas State and they don’t call it. I do two high steps and I get 15 yards.’ He used to do that stuff all the time. I got to stick to my high-fives.”

Faux outrage is fun reserved for winners, and surely the Vandals were that on Saturday at the Kibbie Dome – 35-27 over the school up the road, Eastern Washington, which Idaho hadn’t beaten in 20 years, though granted that amounted to just three defeats.

Still, the Vandals hadn’t scored a touchdown in losses here in 2003 and 2012, and were pasted 38-14 in Cheney last fall. Geography aside, this has never been much of a rivalry. Idaho won 15 of the first 19, and only two of those wins were one-score games. For a while, before Idaho’s two-decade stab at FBS glory, the schools tried to manufacture enthusiasm by billing it as the Governor’s Cup, which presumably is a repository for ballpoints on somebody’s office desk these days.

But the Vandals had all the rivalry feels this time.

“We wanted to destroy them,” linebacker Christian Elliss said. “We wanted to bury them and put them in the dirt.”

Even Petrino got in on some of that ill will, ginned up though it was from Eastern’s FCS Top 25 collision with Jacksonville State last week.

“I don’t know why it bugged me,” he said, “but hearing them talk (about) that ‘We played one of the best FCS teams we’ll play all year’ – that struck a couple of us the wrong way.”

But by now, Petrino is a connoisseur of slights, real and imagined.

A fan base, or what remains of it, spoiled by rifle-armed greats going back almost 40 years has been, uh, slow to warm to his on-field charms. That’s one way of putting it. Another is that the only thing that would make Mason Petrino less popular in Idaho is if he publicly proclaimed himself a Democrat.

This has been a function of Idaho’s record the last year and a half and, probably most of all, his last name.

Which is why his father and Idaho head coach, Paul Petrino, couldn’t help himself when he was pouring out all his postgame happiness and pride for everyone connected with the program – players, coaches, families – from lingering a moment on his son.

“I’m happy for my son, who most people in here don’t like,” he said in his press gathering. “But he plays his butt off and he competes and he’s a good player. At some point, people might be able to say it.”

He was very good Saturday – and, yes, that was in part because everyone else around him was very good. The offensive line simply owned the Eagles in the first half when that lead reached 28-0. The backs ran hard. Jeff Cotton continues to be a revelation at receiver.

But there was also Petrino, throwing for 240 yards and running for another 60 and doing all the right things “you don’t even see,” said the elder Petrino, “changing protections and changing runs.”

He was at his best on the drive Idaho absolutely needed, after Eastern finally found some second-half rhythm – a play-action flip to Logan Kendall to get the Vandals going, a nervy bullet to Cotton through a crack of daylight and finally a perfectly placed ball to Cotton in the back of the end zone while Petrino was getting flattened on a rollout. All of this after a bad interception early in the fourth quarter that aided Eastern’s comeback, proving his father’s assessment that “he’s got some grit and toughness – like his mom.”

This will hardly silence the many critics, and the younger Petrino knows it.

“I don’t care,” he said. “They can all hate me. They can all boo. The guys in the locker room, it’s all love. They can say whatever they want. That’s the keyboard warriors in 2019.”

Is it hard to tune out?

“Yeah, when your phone blows up,” he allowed. “I’ve deleted all social media. I told my mom she should get me like a 1999 flip phone – like my little Razr. It’s hard, but it is what it is, being a coach’s kid.”

But maybe there’ll be a slight bump in the approval ratings. If not, at least Mason Petrino got to high-step home this time.

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