MOSCOW, Idaho – The COVID-related absence of starting quarterback Mike Beaudry did not drive the narrative in Idaho’s 33-32 last-minute comeback victory against Southern Utah on Saturday.
Beaudry’s backup, freshman CJ Jordan, had an impressive debut that may become the stuff of “I-was-at-the-dome-that-day” legend among Vandals fans as Jordan’s career in Moscow unfolds.
Jordan led the Vandals to a touchdown in the first series of football he played for them and completed 16 of 27 passes for 183 yards, rushing for an additional 38 yards.
His distinctive sidearm delivery was quick, on target and looked tailor-made for Idaho’s intermediate passing game.
On the ground, with quick feet and the ability to run through tackles, Jordan attacked the Thunderbirds’ defense as decisively as UI running back Dylan Thigpen, who rushed for 110 yards and a touchdown on nine carries.
Yet even Jordan was overshadowed by his backup.
After Jordan limped off with about 7 seconds to play in the third quarter, sophomore Nikhil Nayar took the Vandals home in the final quarter.
Nayar quickly threw a touchdown to Hayden Hatten to cut Southern Utah’s lead to 29-27.
After the Thunderbirds widened their advantage to 32-27 on Jake Gerardi’s 46-yard field goal with just over 2 minutes to play, Nayar led Idaho on an 82-yard drive in which he converted three first downs on third or fourth down.
He found a leaping Cutrell Haywood in the back of the end zone from 7 yards out with 7 seconds left to complete the comeback.
“Nikhil came out there and took it on himself to win the game,” Thigpen said.
“The last drive, Nikhil, I can’t be more proud of him,” Vandals coach Paul Petrino said.
In a midweek news conference, Petrino predicted a close game the Vandals would have to win in the fourth quarter.
“I don’t know if I needed it to be that close,” Petrino said. “It was scary to coach, but it was a fun ending.”
Idaho improved to 2-1.
Southern Utah (1-3) also lost late in the fourth quarter to Northern Arizona and Idaho State.
As COVID continued to erode Idaho’s starting lineup for the second straight game, the loss of key defenders such as linebacker Tre Walker and defensive end Kayote Rufai kept Idaho from getting sufficient pressure on Thunderbirds quarterback Justin Miller.
Miller responded with an impressive line: 25 of 39 for 422 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions. In the second quarter, SUU had run its lead to 22-10. Idaho, however, rose to the challenge in the second half.
“We started basically tackling better, doing our jobs better, playing tighter coverage,” Petrino said.
“The defense did not play very well in the first half,” Petrino said. “Boy, they stepped up and did a great job in the second half.”
Linebacker Fa’Avae Fa’Avae led Idaho with 18 tackles.
Fa’Avae said Idaho’s greatest difficulty in the first half was giving up big plays, and the Vandals tightened up in the second half.
UI defensive end Charles Akanno, who came back this year from a torn Achilles tendon suffered in 2019, had his best outing since his return. He finished with three tackles but consistently pressured Miller in the second half.
With just less than 8 minutes to play and the Thunderbirds threatening to increase a 29-27 lead, Akanno harried Miller into underthrowing a potential first-down pass to Brandon Schenks.
Idaho cornerback Awan Parker jumped the route and made the interception.
It might have been as big a stop as the Vandals have made all year.
Defensive tackle Noah Elliss also broke up a Thunderbirds drive when he made his first sack for the Vandals.
“That sack Noah had was big. That was a game changer,” Fa’Avae said.
Fa’Avae was a spectator for the winning drive.
But as perilous as things got in the final 2 minutes for Idaho with third- and fourth-down conversions, Fa’Avae said he never lost faith.
“I’m the type of guy, I like to watch the whole play break down. Some people, they put their head down and wait for the fans to scream,” FaAvae said. “But I want to see everything. I had a gut feeling we were going to win that game, no matter how long it took.”
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