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‘It makes you work harder’: Steady Nick Romano and the Idaho Vandals look to bounce back against Montana

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 21, 2021

Idaho’s Nick Romano awaits a kickoff during a nonconference game against Oregon State on Sept. 18 in Corvallis, Ore.  (Amanda Loman)
Idaho’s Nick Romano awaits a kickoff during a nonconference game against Oregon State on Sept. 18 in Corvallis, Ore. (Amanda Loman)
By Peter Harriman For The Spokesman-Review

MOSCOW, Idaho – If you are falling or drowning, the only thing that matters is to stop falling or drowning.

Enter Nick Romano.

For a University of Idaho football team that was torched last time out by Eastern Washington (71-21) and is sitting at 2-4, 1-2 in the Big Sky Conference, changing the trajectory of the season is imperative.

The Vandals host Montana (4-2, 1-2 in the Big Sky after falling to Sacramento State last week) Saturday. Each team came into the season with playoff goals. Now each desperately needs a win.

The Vandals are beaten up. Their top two starting quarterbacks. Mike Beaudry and C.J. Jordan, are out with injuries, as are the top four cornerbacks and All-America receiver Hayden Hatten.

Idaho, however, can reach out and hang on to the sturdy presence of Romano. He has been a contributor in every game Idaho has played this year. Not the fastest. Not the biggest at about 5-foot-10, 210 pounds.

But the utterly reliable Romano has eight rushing attempts for 46 yards. He has caught six passes for 50 yards. In his expertise of returning kicks, he has brought back 12 for 278 yards, averaging 23.2 yards per kick, with a long return of 47 yards.

The sophomore running back was a freshman All-America honorable mention and second-team All-Big Sky kick returner following the 2021 spring season.

“Every opportunity to touch the ball, I embrace it,” Romano said.

In practices leading up to the game with Montana, Romano caught 30-yard passes from freshman quarterback Gevani McCoy, as well as taking his customary turns as a runner and blocker in the backfield rotation, a kickoff returner and a member of the kick coverage team.

Probably the best way to measure his value to the Vandals is in all-purpose yards. For his career, Romano is averaging 104.3 per game.

As a prep at Rocky Mountain High School in Meridian, Romano was Idaho’s 5A player of the year after leading his team to an undefeated season as a senior and running for 309 yards and two touchdowns in the state championship game. But he never got to return kicks until he came to Idaho.

“It’s definitely a blast,” Romano said. “It’s something I never got to experience in high school.”

When he takes off out of the end zone or inside the 5-yard line, he doesn’t hear the crowd or forget the assistance of his teammates.

“Every time, you run like everything is open,” Romano said. “I’m in a tunnel. The other 10 guys make it work. It’s not all me.”

Being a member of a team will be the enduring part of college football, Romano said.

“The brotherhood with my teammates,” he said. “We care for each other. There are not little cliques. We are making lifelong friendships.”

His two kick returns against EWU for 65 yards, including the season-long return of 47 yards, were among Idaho’s scarce highlights against the Eagles.

“It’s never fun to get killed like that,” Romano said. “It makes you work harder in practice.”

The Vandals are focused on Montana now, Romano said.

“(The EWU loss) was in the past as soon as the bus ride home was over,” he said.

Idaho’s opponent comes to Moscow also in serious need of a helping hand. Despite a 34-28 loss to EWU, the Grizzlies, who defeated Washington 13-7 in a shocking season-opening upset, were ranked fifth nationally and still had hopes of winning a Big Sky title.

But at home against Sacramento State last week, Montana got down early. With a chance to tie the game in the fourth quarter after driving to the Hornets’ 14-yard line, quarterback Kris Brown threw an interception, and Sacramento State held on to win 28-21. Offensive inconsistency has plagued the Grizzlies.

“We have not been able to capitalize,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said after the loss to the Hornets.

Brown, in five career starts, has thrown two interceptions and lost three of four fumbles. Against Sacramento State, he threw for 188 yards but didn’t complete a pass longer than 16 yards. Brown replaced senior Cam Humphrey, who injured an ankle against EWU on Oct. 2 and has not played since.

Idaho coach Paul Petrino said the Grizzlies remain formidable on defense. He expects them to blitz constantly against the Vandals against a pair of relatively inexperienced Vandals quarterbacks in Zach Borisch and McCoy.

The game could become a defensive battle that turns on which team brings the better running game and can conjure up a special teams highlight or two, Petrino said. That sounds like Romano’s wheelhouse.

“They’re a hard-nosed team,” Romano said. “So are we.”

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