MOSCOW, Idaho – Everyone involved with Idaho football – players, coaches and supporters – felt like the Vandals missed an opportunity in last week’s road loss to California, when they scored the game’s first 17 points before the Golden Bears rallied in the final two quarters to secure a 31-17 victory.
“We made too many mistakes,” Idaho coach Jason Eck said after.
With that as a backdrop, it placed more emphasis – if that was even possible – on the seventh-ranked Vandals’ first home game of the season facing defending Big Sky champion and fourth-ranked Sacramento State in both teams’ conference opener.
The Hornets were feeling confident, and why not? They came in undefeated and fresh off their 30-23 upset of Stanford.
For the second straight week, Idaho led at halftime. This time, though it got close, the Vandals got the job done.
Ricardo Chavez kicked a tiebreaking 30-yard field goal with 1 second left on the clock and the Vandals topped the Hornets 36-27 at the Kibbie Dome on Saturday.
On the ensuing kickoff, Vandals redshirt freshman Ormanie Arnold recovered a fumble for a touchdown to provide the margin of victory.
“It’s clearly our best home win I think we’ve had in the two years we’ve been here,” Eck said. “It’s a good step and you’ve got to defend your own field.”
Eck was especially happy the way the Vandals reacted when challenged in the second half.
“(Last week) we didn’t do a very good job responding when the momentum went against us,” he said.
“Then you have a game like today where the momentum kept swinging back and forth. I was just really proud of our guys, that we kept responding back and forth, because that’s a really good football team.”
The Idaho win snaps Sacramento State’s 19-game winning streak in the conference dating to 2019.
Chavez was businesslike talking about his winner.
“I came up to Coach Eck, and I told him, ‘Coach, we need to go for the win. This is where I want the ball.’ The coaches did a great job putting me in a position to succeed.”
It was the first winning kick of Chavez’s career, but he kept his nerves in check.
“I mean, if I didn’t care about this, I wouldn’t feel any type of nerves,” Chavez said. “But of course, I go out there and I feel nervous. I care about this team.”
The Vandals (3-1, 1-0) were led by Anthony Woods, who was questionable until Thursday, with 118 yards and a score on 24 carries. UI’s Gevani McCoy completed 15 of 21 passes for 234 yards with two TDs.
“(Woods) is a great player. I’m really proud of him for how tough he was,” Eck said. “If you would have asked me Thursday was he gonna have 24 carries, I would have said, ‘No way, I hope I can get like 10 out of him or something.’ But he’s a warrior.”
The Vandals’ defense limited Marcus Fulcher to 44 yards on 10 carries and quarterback Kaiden Bennett to 15-of-29 passing for 236 yards and 30 yards on 12 carries with two sacks.
“I think we hit him, you know,” Eck said of Bennett. “He hadn’t been hit. He hadn’t been sacked yet. So, we got some guys on him and put a little pressure on him.”
After Fulcher’s 11-yard touchdown catch with just under 5 minutes to go tied it at 27, UI’s Jermaine Jackson returned the kick to the Idaho 36 and was flung out of bounds, resulting in a personal foul to set the Vandals up at the Hornets 49.
On third-and-2, Woods picked up 4 yards up the middle for a first down, then broke a series of tackles to gain 19 yards to the 18 to take the clock under 2 minutes.
Woods carried again for 3 yards, and Sacramento State (3-1, 0-1) took its last timeout with 1 minute, 38 seconds left. Woods plowed into the line twice more to set up Chavez’s winning kick.
“We all got faith in (Chavez),” McCoy said. “We just needed to drive down the field, kill the clock and get us in field-goal range and trust that Ricardo was going to win us the game.”
It sets up a big matchup Saturday when the Vandals take on Eastern Washington at Roos Field in Cheney. Eck hopes that the rivalry takes on renewed fervor.
“We had a good result against them last year, but you know what, one game isn’t enough. We’ve got to keep showing that,” he said. “We’re getting to their level, and hopefully getting above their level, because they’ve done a great job. Coach Best has done a good job there for a lot of years.”
The Vandals and Hornets traded first-quarter field goals. Early in the second quarter, the Vandals used their ground attack to move downfield, then Jackson’s diving catch on a corner route put Idaho at the 2. Woods scored from there to cap a 12-play, 68-yard drive for a 10-3 lead with just more than 7 minutes to go in the half.
The Vandals’ defense forced a three-and-out, providing good field position, and a roughing the punter penalty gave Idaho a first down at the Hornets 37. Presented with fourth-and-6 at the 33, Eck asked for timeout with 1:26 left and Chavez hit a 50-yard field goal to make it 13-3.
Bennett went straight to the air and hit Jared Gipson on a sideline route. Marcus Harris went for the pick and missed, and Gipson raced 49 yards to the Idaho 25. The Vandals committed a pair of personal fouls to put the Hornets on the 6, and Bennett connected with tight end Austin Jarred on an out route with 31 seconds left.
Idaho took a three-point lead into halftime.
“We gotta be a little bit more disciplined with our D-line,” Eck said. “We had some of those foolish penalties that extend drives.”
The Vandals came out firing in the second half. McCoy scrambled and found Hayden Hatten for 16 yards to near midfield, then hit Turon Ivy Jr. on a flea flicker down the right sideline for a 52-yard touchdown and a 20-10 lead early in the third quarter.
“I kind of call (trick plays) elements, because they’re elements of your offense,” Eck said. “But they can be explosive, highly explosive, like hydrogen or something.”
But Sacramento State went the length of the field. Out of a full-house backfield, Fulcher broke a tackle and went around right end to narrow the gap to 20-17.
After a long punt return was wiped out by a holding penalty, Idaho took over at its 9. Woods carried 16 yards to the 40, then McCoy connected with a streaking Terez Traynor down the right sideline again on a 60-yard catch-and-run, and the Vandals led 27-17 with 18 seconds left in the third quarter.
Down 10 early in the fourth quarter, the Hornets opted for a short field goal. On the ensuing Idaho drive, Hatten was hit during an extra-effort attempt for a first down. The ball popped loose, and the Hornets recovered at their 46. A 31-yard completion to Anderson Grover took it to the Idaho 28, and a facemask penalty moved it to the 14.
On third-and-7 from the 11, Bennett hit Fulcher on a swing pass for a touchdown. The extra point tied it with 4:54 left.