Playing football after Thanksgiving has been a foreign experience of late for the Idaho Vandals.
Since returning to the Football Championship Subdivision in 2017, the Vandals posted records of 4-8, 4-7, 5-7, 2-4 and 4-7 before this year’s 7-4 turnaround.
The resurgence was good enough to get them into the first round of the FCS playoffs Saturday at Southeastern Louisiana University, 8-3 and the second-place team in the Southland Conference.
But the Vandals have a few members with football experience that continued into the holidays.
Before he transferred to Idaho, senior captain Fa’Avae Fa’Avae was on Washington State teams that played in the 2018 Alamo Bowl and 2017 Holiday Bowl.
A graduate transfer, defensive end Juliano Falaniko played in the 2019 Holiday Bowl and 2017 Cotton Bowl for USC, and linebacker Paul Moala played in the Cotton Bowl in 2018, Cheez It Bowl in 2019 and Rose Bowl in 2021, respectively, for Notre Dame.
Then there is Vandals wide receivers coach Matt Linehan. He quarterbacked Idaho to its final Football Bowl Subdivision bowl victory, a wild 61-50 affair with Colorado State in the 2016 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
These players and coach have insights into how things change for a team when games go beyond the regular season.
“It’s a different feeling,” Falaniko said. He and Moala agreed that the urgency in preparing for postseason games is turned up a notch.
“You have got to be sharp in every detail. We had to be sharp on every single thing on both sides of the ball,” Falaniko said.
“You try to nail down your fundamentals,” Moala added.
While this will not affect Idaho, which is rolling into the FCS playoffs a week after concluding its regular season with a 38-7 win against Idaho State, Moala points out that for teams practicing for a bowl game weeks after the regular season, motivation can be an issue.
“After Thanksgiving, you have to maintain your focus,” he says. “The dog days set in. You want to be done with football.”
The win-and-advance aspect of the playoffs is also different from a bowl game.
“It feels a lot like high school,” Moala said. “It’s really exciting.”
For Falaniko, a senior, chasing postseason wins is also stirring.
“Say we win this week,” he said. “I get to play more football the following week. I get to spend more time with my teammates.”
That is the major payoff, according to Linehan. After taking care of business often enough in the regular season, “everything has come to fruition. This is the reward you get. You can continue to do what you love to do, play this game…You just feel like you’ve got this extra time. You earned this.”
Having experienced success with the Vandals as a junior quarterback in 2016 and now as a first-year assistant coach, Linehan said there are differences between those seasons.
“This season feels like it is coming out of nowhere,” he said. After five straight losing seasons, and with a new coaching staff, nothing seemed guaranteed to the Vandals going into this year.
“The bowl team, it felt like we had been building toward that for a couple of years,” Linehan said.
As a quarterback, Linehan got to throw to standout tight ends Deon Watson and Trent Cowan and wide receivers like Jacob Sannon.
“Those are my guys. They are always going to be my guys,” Linehan said.
But in his first year of coaching Idaho’s wide receivers, he has had the opportunity to teach first-team All-Big Sky Conference receivers Hayden Hatten and Jermaine Jackson.
“I’m very fortunate to coach them,” Linehan said.
After leading Idaho to the Famous Potato Bowl win as a junior, Linehan played as a senior in the Vandals’ final season in the Sun Belt Conference before Idaho dropped from FBS back to FCS and the Big Sky Conference.
“We belong in FBS, no matter what our tone-deaf president thinks,” Linehan said then, a remark for which he later apologized.
But he has come around to embrace the FCS playoffs and how they connect Idaho to its rollicking past in the 1980s and 1990s when the Vandals won five Big Sky championships and made 11 playoff appearances, reaching the semifinals in 1988 and 1993.
Linehan gestured to the championship banners hanging in the Kibbie Dome and noted that his father, Scott, also a quarterback, led Idaho to one of those titles and into the playoffs twice.
“I talk to people who played and coached then when they come back, and they say it was so much fun. I want to be a part of that. My goal is to get back to that,” he said.
For the Vandals, who spent five years wondering what it must be like to play football after Thanksgiving, the journey begins Saturday.
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