Cornerback Marcus Harris scored the game-clinching touchdown late in the fourth quarter on a long interception return, and the third-ranked Idaho Vandals escaped Greeley, Colorado, with a tight victory over the Big Sky’s last-place team.
Idaho is two wins away from a Big Sky title after surviving a challenge from winless Northern Colorado on Saturday afternoon at Nottingham Field. The Vandals stayed ahead of the Bears by a narrow margin throughout the game, and Harris sealed a 27-13 win with a 70-yard pick-6.
“What a huge play,” Vandals coach Jason Eck said on the Idaho postgame radio show of Harris’ interception. “Great job blocking by the rest of the defense to get (Harris) down there and ice the game.”
Facing a second-and-11 from his 36-yard line with about 3 minutes remaining in a one-score game, Northern Colorado quarterback Shea Kuykendall overthrew a deep pass down the sideline. Harris caught the pick in stride, then weaved his way downfield behind blockers. The all-conference junior went untouched into the end zone.
“We knew we had to make a play and make a stop in order to get off the field and win this game,” Harris said. “As soon as I catch the ball, that’s my mindset – I think I can score every time.”
Idaho (7-2, 5-1 Big Sky) never trailed, but the heavily favored visitors couldn’t separate from the Bears (0-9, 0-6) until Harris’ takeaway.
“We gotta play better,” Eck said. “I gotta do a better job of getting the team ready throughout the week.”
Northern Colorado trimmed its deficit to 17-13 early in the fourth quarter on a 25-yard field goal after Idaho quarterback Gevani McCoy threw an interception at the Vandals’ 29-yard line. Idaho marched downfield quickly on the ensuing possession but had to settle for a short field goal with 4:44 left. The game came down to the final possession, and the Vandals’ defense closed out a tense win.
Idaho’s defense committed a few too many penalties and sometimes struggled against the run, but for the most part, the unit led the way for the Vandals, whose offense had an inconsistent showing.
Idaho was held to a season-low 326 yards, but the Vandals were productive enough to counter the Bears’ bursts of momentum and stay in front.
The Vandals forced three-and-outs on each of Northern Colorado’s first two possessions, and Idaho went up 10-0 early in the second quarter on tailback Anthony Woods’ conference-leading 13th rushing touchdown of the year, capping a 90-yard series. The Bears scored a touchdown on a 16-play, 83-yard possession to make things interesting before halftime.
Idaho opened the second half with a 17-play, 84-yard scoring drive that spanned nearly 10 minutes. The Vandals ran the ball 10 times on that series, which ended with a 5-yard TD catch from All-American receiver Hayden Hatten – his sixth receiving TD of the year.
“We needed to get the run game going,” Eck said. “(The Bears) were doing some ‘drop eight’ … which made it tough to throw. That was my message to the offensive staff (at halftime), ‘Let’s get the run game going,’ and I thought we responded well.”
Idaho’s defense held firm in the red zone on the Bears’ next drive, forcing a 40-yard field goal that cut the Vandals’ lead to 17-10 early in the fourth quarter.
McCoy completed 18 of 25 passes for 193 yards with one TD and one interception. Hatten tallied 104 yards and a score on six receptions. Woods rushed for 105 yards, averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
True freshman linebacker Xe’ree Alexander led Idaho with a season-high 13 tackles and two tackles for loss.
The Bears managed 186 yards – their second-lowest output of the year. Kuykendall, making his first career start in place of injured starter Jacob Sirmon, went 14 of 22 for 55 yards with a TD and a pick. Tailback David Afari had 79 yards on the ground.
Idaho has clinched its second consecutive winning season – the Vandals hadn’t posted back-to-back winning seasons since 1998-99.
“Those are positive steps for our program,” Eck said. “It’s good to come down here and not play our best football, and still get a win.”
Idaho has also likely locked up a spot in the Football Championship Subdivision playoff field. If the Vandals win their final two games, they’ll claim at least a share of the conference championship.
“We’ve been talking about winning the conference,” Harris said. “When coach Eck got here (in 2022), winning the conference was at the top of our list. We’re sticking to the plan.”
Up next, Idaho meets Weber State at noon Saturday in Ogden, Utah.