MOSCOW, Idaho – The last minute made all the difference.
When Nikhil Nayar threw a winning touchdown to Cutrell Haywood with 7 seconds to play against Southern Utah on Saturday, it ensured the Vandals would head to Pocatello, Idaho, with the momentum of a 2-1 record.
Their opponent Saturday, Idaho State (1-3), is desperate to salvage a season that is drifting toward the rocks.
“Expect those guys to do everything they can, empty the bag to win this game,” Idaho senior defensive lineman Rahsaan Crawford has warned teammates about ISU.
Conversely, the power of a winning record for the Vandals can’t be overstated. No current Idaho players have experienced it until now.
“It’s a pleasure,” Crawford said. “It’s such a wonderful feeling to wake up and be a part of this program, come to practice, come to workouts, come to lifting … it’s just a pleasure to see everything sort of starting to pay off.”
Football this spring, however, comes with a caveat. The weekly COVID tests can change everything. Idaho’s lone loss, to UC Davis, came when the Vandals were forced to play without nine starters. When the COVID numbers continued to blow up, Idaho had to postpone its game the next week at Northern Arizona.
“I don’t know if you can ever say you’ve settled in at any position,” Idaho coach Paul Petrino acknowledged about the potential for week-to-week roster churn.
Assuming reasonable facsimiles of the Vandals’ and Bengals’ starting lineups can take the field, Petrino anticipates the game will turn on the ability of his defensive line to pressure ISU quarterback Tyler Vander Waal.
“He can throw it all over the field. He can run it. He’s athletic,” Petrino said of Vander Waal.
Vander Waal has completed 76 of 149 passes for 1,177 yards with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season. Crawford is in agreement with Petrino.
“For the most part, he’s a pretty good quarterback,” Crawford said of Vander Waal. “I think with any quarterback, if you hit him enough you can rattle him, make him uncomfortable, get him off his game.”
Vander Waal spreads out the ball among a half-dozen receivers, but his favorite target is Tanner Connor, who has 19 catches for 379 yards with three touchdowns.
Crawford and interior defensive linemates such as Nate DeGrew, Jonah Kim and Noah Elliss give Idaho an improving pass rush up the middle. When the Vandals were previously able to get into opponents’ backfields, it was generally off the edge, with Charles Akanno leading the way. In eight games in 2019 before suffering a season-ending Achilles tendon injury, Akanno forced four fumbles and had 13.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He has been improving week-to-week this spring, according to Petrino, and Akanno’s best effort was the second half against Southern Utah.
Petrino said he hopes Akanno takes another step toward regaining his form against the Bengals.
“We really need him to have a great game,” he said.
Idaho’s leading tackler from 2019, linebacker Tre Walker, who was also a Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Week this season, missed the Southern Utah game. He was probably a COVID casualty, but Petrino does not confirm those.
Against the Thunderbirds, Fa’Avae Fa’Avae stepped up and made a career-high 18 tackles at linebacker to earn conference defensive player of the week honors. The reliable Christian Elliss contributed another six tackles at linebacker.
ISU’s record is marinated with heartbreak. It could be 3-1. The Bengals held the lead late in the fourth quarter in losses against Eastern Washington and UC Davis.
Idaho’s offense is also coming off a productive and varied effort against SUU. Senior running back Dylan Thigpen followed the blocking of a solid offensive line and fullback Logan Kendall for 110 yards and a touchdown on just nine carries. Hayden Hatten caught 12 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown, and the winning score Haywood grabbed was one of six catches for 68 yards he made against the Thunderbirds.
The story of the season for the Vandals, though, is quarterback play. Graduate transfer Mike Beaudry started the first two games. In a win and a loss against EWU and UC Davis, respectively, he completed 49 of 82 passing attempts for 532 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions.
When Beaudry was unable to play against SUU, freshman C.J. Jordan stepped in and threw for 183 yards on 16 completions in 27 attempts. He also rushed for 38 yards and showed a real propensity for moving Idaho’s offense.
But Jordan injured an ankle late in the third quarter, and Nayar finished the game for Idaho, completing 12 of 20 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns. Their depth at quarterback makes the Vandals practically COVID-proof at the position, and it gives ISU a challenge in preparing a defensive game plan.
He smiled when he spoke, but Petrino said, “I’m going to play all three of them.”
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