MOSCOW, Idaho – A second-half rally, a clutch play at the end of regulation, a walk-off victory – the Idaho Vandals extended their season in thrilling fashion.
Kicker Ricardo Chavez knocked through a game-winning field-goal attempt in overtime and the Vandals prevailed in a postseason classic, claiming a long-awaited victory in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
The Vandals are moving on to the quarterfinal round of the FCS playoffs after grinding out a 20-17 win over Southern Illinois on Saturday evening at the Kibbie Dome.
“It’s pretty amazing,” second-year Idaho coach Jason Eck said. “If you would have told me we’d be in the quarterfinals in Year 2, I don’t know if I would have believed you.”
Idaho linebacker Xe’ree Alexander blocked the Salukis’ game-winning field-goal attempt as time expired. The Vandals’ defense stood tall on Southern Illinois’ first drive of the overtime period, then Chavez sealed the win with a 28-yard field goal.
The Kibbie Dome crowd of 9,224 roared as Vandal players rushed the field. A few of them jumped into the student section to celebrate the program’s first FCS playoff win since 1993.
“I’m very proud for the whole University of Idaho,” Eck said.
No. 4 seed Idaho (9-3) will host fifth-seeded Albany at 7 p.m. Saturday.
The Vandals never held a lead until Chavez’s game-clinching kick. They trailed by 10 points in the first half, and had to rally twice in the second half to send the game into an extra period.
“Our team showed a lot of character and perseverance,” Eck said. “It wasn’t necessarily pretty. There are no style points in the playoffs. Credit to our guys for finding a way to win.”
The Salukis (8-5) went nowhere on their one overtime possession. Quarterback Nic Baker was intercepted by standout Idaho cornerback Marcus Harris on third down. The Vandals gained 14 yards on seven rushing attempts to set up a short attempt for their all-conference kicker.
“I think he’s the best kicker in the country,” Eck said.
Idaho, which had been sluggish on offense for much of the night, put together its best drive of the game to tie the score late in regulation.
Paced by star receiver Hayden Hatten, who totaled 61 receiving yards on the possession, the Vandals marched downfield and punched in a TD on Anthony Woods’ 1-yard run, which tied the game at 17 with 4:17 remaining.
On the ensuing possession, Baker made a handful of crucial plays to get his team into field-goal range. The Salukis drained the clock down to 3 seconds and lined up for a 41-yard field goal. Kicker Jake Baumgarte’s attempt was tipped at the line, and fell several yards short of the crossbar.
Facing a 10-3 deficit midway through the third quarter, the Vandals got a special-teams spark from star speedster Jermaine Jackson, who eluded several tacklers on an 86-yard punt return TD.
“Shout-out to the dudes blocking,” Jackson said. “They helped me explode for that. Just a great way to change the game. Special teams change the game.”
The Salukis answered with a 75-yard scoring possession that spanned 11 plays. Tailback Ro Elliott capped the drive with a 1-yard TD run, his second score of the night.
Idaho lacked any semblance of rhythm on offense for most of the first half as the Salukis built a two-score lead. The Vandals went on a 12-play, 45-yard drive in the waning minutes of the first half and cut the deficit to 10-3 at the break on Chavez’s 40-yard field goal. Idaho finished the first half averaging 2.7 yards per play.
Southern Illinois, which boasts a top-10 defense in the FCS, held the Vandals to a season-low 287 yards of offense, and Idaho went 2-for-12 on third downs. The Salukis totaled 314 yards, but Idaho’s defense made timely plays to keep the team in striking distance.
Vandal linebacker Tre Thomas forced a fumble in the red zone on Southern Illinois’ first drive of the second half. Idaho edge rusher Malakai Williams was there to collect the takeaway. The Salukis managed 13 yards on eight plays over their next two drives, then Jackson broke off his game-changing punt return.
“We just kept believing,” Eck said. “(Jackson’s) return got us belief, and we kept battling.”
Idaho quarterback Gevani McCoy passed 15 of 23 for 182 yards with no touchdowns and one interception – a short pass was tipped and picked by Saluki linebacker Branson Combs early in the third quarter.
Woods ran for 68 yards and a score on 18 carries. Hatten had 111 yards on six receptions. Backup tailback Nick Romano had 62 yards from scrimmage, including a key 26-yard catch on the Vandals’ game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter.
Baker completed 20 of 34 passes for 198 yards for the Salukis.