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Idaho Football

‘I knew we could win here’: Idaho seeing early returns under head coach Jason Eck with FCS quarterfinal berth

Idaho defensive back Andrew Marshall locks in on Southern Illinois running back Jaelin Benefield on Saturday at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho.  (Geoff Crimmins/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

MOSCOW, Idaho – The Idaho Vandals are one of eight teams remaining in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs – a stage of the FCS postseason that Idaho’s program had only reached four times before this season.

When Jason Eck took the head coaching job at Idaho, he envisioned this kind of success.

“I knew we could win here,” he said. “I knew we could get it going.”

The Vandals have become an FCS heavyweight in just two years under Eck, who will admit that he couldn’t have predicted this quick of a climb. In 2021, Eck figured it might take a couple of years to build the program.

“If you would have told me we’d be in the quarterfinals in Year Two, I don’t know if I would have believed you,” Eck added Saturday after the Vandals topped Southern Illinois 20-17 in the second round of the playoffs.

“I kind of thought (when he first arrived at Idaho), by my third year, we have to make the playoffs. But here we are, sitting in the quarterfinals in Year Two. Just a credit to our players for buying in – the existing guys, and then there’s so many good young players that we’ve been able to bring in who are playing so well.”

The fourth-seeded Vandals (9-3) received a first-round bye for the FCS playoffs, then ground out an overtime win over SIU last weekend at the Kibbie Dome. Idaho’s magical season continues at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Kibbie Dome, when the Vandals host No. 5 seed Albany (10-3), of the Coastal Athletic Conference. The game will be available to stream on ESPN+.

“It’s a great honor for our young men to put us in this situation,” Eck said Monday. “Good win over (SIU), but there’s not much time to celebrate that one at all, because we’ve got a great Albany team coming out here.

“When you get down to eight teams, there’s no fluff left. These are all very, very good teams.”

It’s shaping up to be another defensive battle in Moscow when the Vandals and Great Danes square off. Idaho ranks in the top 10 nationally in total defense and passing defense. Albany leads the nation in sacks, turnovers gained and rushing defense. The Great Danes sit in the top 10 in the FCS in total defense, scoring defense and red-zone defense.

“Their defense is outstanding,” Eck said. “I think they’re probably a little scarier, a little better than (SIU’s) defense, and Southern’s defense did a great job against us.”

The Vandals were held to a season-low 287 yards of offense last weekend against the Salukis, who came in with a top-10 defense in the country. Idaho went 2 for 12 on third downs and committed two turnovers. The Vandals had trouble sustaining possessions for most of the game, but their defense made a number of clutch plays to keep it close.

Idaho got a special teams spark in the third quarter from speedster Jermaine Jackson, who returned a punt 86 yards for a touchdown.

“We’re a very mentally strong, mentally tough team,” Eck said. “That’s one of the strengths of our team. Guys kept believing. (Jackson’s) return got us even more belief. Every time we had adversity, we responded.”

The Vandals rallied late with a game-tying touchdown drive, then blocked a field-goal attempt from the Salukis at the end of regulation. Idaho’s defense came up with a takeaway in overtime, and the Vandals walked it off with a short field goal from Ricardo Chavez in overtime.

“I was really pleased – I thought our defense played very hard,” Eck said Monday. “There were times that I saw on tape where we could have strained more on offense. We gotta keep things simple and play really fast. We had a few busts during the game (on offense). There were probably some jitters – first playoff game of the year, first playoff game at the Kibbie Dome in a long time.”

‘Our fans can really be a factor’

Home-field advantage is crucial in the postseason.

“The best thing we’ve got going for us is the Kibbie Dome, so we need to have a great crowd,” Eck said. “I think our fans can really be a factor in this game.”

Eck is hoping for favorable weather, so fans from the Boise and Spokane areas can make the trip to the Palouse. Eck said it’s a nice coincidence that Idaho’s game Saturday falls on the same day as the school’s winter graduation ceremony.

The Vandals hosted a season-low home attendance of 9,224 last week, but Eck called the crowd “amazing.” The Vandals faithful were lively throughout the night.

“We’re getting to the point where 9,000 has been like our worst crowd of the year, so that’s pretty impressive from where we were a few years ago,” he said.

The Great Danes haven’t had to travel much this season. Eck noted that Albany has only taken two flights to games, because CAA programs are generally close in proximity. The Great Danes are 4-3 on the road.

“I’m very excited to play them here instead of having to go out to Albany, New York,” Eck said. “Getting that No. 4 seed over the No. 5 seed is a big swing, even though it’s one spot in the rankings. We need the crowd to be an advantage. And hopefully, playing late can be an advantage. Maybe (SIU) got tired at the end of the game, because it was getting late in their time (zone). I don’t know, because we played better late than we did early in that game.”

Big seasons for two Vandals stars

Receiver Hayden Hatten and tailback Anthony Woods both passed the 1,000-yard mark during Saturday’s win.

Hatten is up to 1,096 receiving yards on the year after recording 111 yards against the Salukis. He was vital during Idaho’s game-tying TD drive in the fourth quarter, with 61 yards on three receptions.

“We gotta get him involved earlier,” Eck said of Hatten, an All-American and one of Idaho’s most productive pass-catchers of all time.

“In the second half, we made a more concerted effort to call a higher percentage of plays that had (Hatten) high in the progression. He certainly came up big and helped us move the ball in the second half.”

Woods ran for 68 yards and a touchdown last weekend to push his season totals to 1,051 rushing yards and 15 rushing TDs. The sophomore, a first-team all-conference honoree, ranks third nationally in rushing TDs and 13th in the FCS in rushing yards.

Woods’ name is quickly ascending in the Idaho record books – he ranks in the program’s top 15 in career rushing yards (1,923) and TDs (18).