MOSCOW - To any onlooker on Saturday, Idaho's defensive backs were ostensibly burned by Idaho State's high-caliber wideouts and veteran field general.
The performance might beg a few questions: Was it partly due to a turnover of talent from the Sun Belt to Big Sky, unexpected in the secondary? Were the schemes off?
To the Vandals' staff and players, it wasn't about the conference - they'd seen similar wideouts at South Alabama, junior corner Lloyd Hightower said - or schematics. Rather, it was anomalous. Also, it was a culmination of slight errors, resulting in about 500 yards through the air allowed and an ISU-record eight touchdown passes, all on a group boasting players who'd seen FBS action, and performed well there.
"I don't even know what to call it," Hightower said. "I guess it was kind of a fluke game. ... We just needed to be more focused."
Although UI's defensive backs were a bit mystified by their unraveling at Pocatello's Holt Arena, some of them had a hunch for its cause.
"People were doing other people's jobs, and not doing their assignment to play as a complete defense," junior safety Denzal Brantley said. "Wrong spots, lining up wrong, our eyes, missing assignments, filling the wrong gaps - we've gotta get that stuff corrected."
For example, UI coach Paul Petrino said there were a couple of instances where his DBs had a five-on-three advantage in zone and man coverage opposite them. However, they got beat on the loaded side.
"A couple times, their QB made great plays and they made really good catches," Petrino said, "but there was a couple times, coverage wise, it shouldn't (have happened)."
It wasn't a lack of effort, it was fault in the fundamentals, the "little things we normally don't do," said Hightower, which the Vandals have spent this week refurbishing. Brantley added that the "togetherness" was absent on Saturday - they need to have more trust in each other.
If Tuesday's practice was any indication, the "communication and focus" - a couple of other traits lacking on Saturday - had returned.
Especially in the skeleton period, UI's DBs turned it up, and didn't allow nearly the substantial offensive plays that had been a regularity in weeks past.
"We were flying around today, getting to the ball, making sure to wrap up, making sure we know that we got the tackle," Brantley said. "We were rallying around each other - getting mental reps too."
UI's next opponent, Montana State - who they'll face Saturday at Bozeman at 1 p.m. PDT - is more of a ground-and-pound type of group. But that's exactly the billing assigned to ISU last week, so now it's impossible to guess what the Vandals will see this weekend.
Regardless, they've been beaten in the pass before (see UC Davis and ISU), and Petrino acknowledged how "a few guys need to carry over how they've been practicing into the game, because we haven't made those mistakes in practice."
The communication - and the takeaways, for that matter - have been there in drills. Hightower and Brantley both admitted that ISU's receivers are talented, but they pinned most of the fault on themselves, and their irregular nature at Holt Arena.
"Last week, we were focused, but ... a couple times, we were just going through the motions instead of being locked in and ready to go," Hightower said. "But we're locked in this week. We're ready to go."
KEEPING THE ROTATION - Co-quarterback Colton Richardson may have played more than half the snaps Saturday, and he may have rejuvenated the offense, but Paul Petrino said the platooning system between Richardson and Mason Petrino is set to continue at Montana State.
MOVING UP - Running back Isaiah Saunders passed three former Vandals on the school's all-time rushing list with his 144-yard day Saturday (John Brogan, Robert Brooks, Elijhaa Penny). His Saturday total - his second-most in a game - bumped him to 14th in program history, at 1,758.
BREAKING OUT PARTY - On a second-and-short late in the third, Richardson scrambled right and found freshman receiver DJ Lee a step in front of his defender. Richardson lofted one, and Lee obliged with a spectacular, leaping catch. He corralled it as he fell, despite the tight coverage. The 28-yard touchdown reception put UI back into striking distance at 41-28, and was Lee's first-ever NCAA score.
But besides being likely UI's best play of the day, the snap had another basis of importance - it was a birthday present for Lee.
SOLIDIFIED AS THE TWO - Freshman running back Tyrese Walker finished with 89 yards and a touchdown on Saturday, further solidifying himself as the No. 2 guy before Saunders. Petrino said Walker has "done that the last couple of weeks," and now it's visible.
Walker's provided a fresh take on the ground with his small frame, combined with a quick step and unexpectedly hard-nosed running style. He scored his first NCAA touchdown against ISU on a 17-yarder up the gut, which he put an exclamation point on with a spin.
THIRD DOWNS STILL KEY - UI went 9-of-18 on third-down situations versus the Bengals - Petrino noted how it could've been much better than that.
The coach counted easy fixes in film, and came to the conclusion that his Vandals should have been 15-of-18 in that aspect, which would've effectively kept them in the game - dropped passes were a killer, with UI committing five of them.
PETRINO ON SPECIAL TEAMS - "(We were) one block away, twice, from taking kickoff returns to the house. So you've gotta get that block. ... We've got to win the special teams, we've gotta get a couple big plays in the special teams. That's one of the places we can score a touchdown, that's one of the places we can score some more points."
Clark may be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @coltonclark95 or by phone at (208) 848-2260.