MOSCOW, Idaho – Idaho’s return to the Football Championship Subdivision hasn’t gone smoothly this season.
But the Vandals got a sign of hope Saturday.
Idaho rallied from a 10-point deficit in the second half, taking the lead on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Mason Petrino to Jeff Cotton with 27 seconds remaining, for a 31-27 victory against North Dakota at the Kibbie Dome.
“Maybe we did not have the season that everybody wanted … but this is one of those games that can change a program around,” Petrino said. “That’s what we’re going to do.”
The Vandals improved to 4-5 overall and 3-4 in the Big Sky Conference, with all the wins coming at home.
“It was just man-on-man. See who can take whose will,” Idaho coach Paul Petrino. “(The Fighting Hawks) do it to most people. How they take your will is to hit hard, as opposed to the new (run-pass option) and go fast.”
Mason Petrino, who completed 27 of 50 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns, said on the final play he noticed the Fighting Hawks (5-4) had brought both safeties close to the line of scrimmage.
“That’s just disrespectful,” he said.
That left Cotton, who had 10 receptions for 137 yards, in single coverage.
“On that play, we never really were supposed to throw the fade,” Cotton said. “But Mason trusted me.”
The Vandals needed a key defensive stop to get the ball back for the winning drive. They forced North Dakota into a three-and-out series on its 21-yard line, with D.J. Henderson sacking quarterback Nate Ketteringham on third down. After a 37-yard punt, Idaho took possession and went 57 yards in 11 plays for the deciding touchdown.
Henderson, a senior, said he was moved to defensive end against North Dakota after playing nearly his entire Idaho career as a noseguard and tackle.
“I had a feeling I was going to have a breakout game,” said Henderson, who had six tackles, including four for loss, and two sacks.
As for the sack that gave Idaho the ball with a chance to win?
“(Coach Petrino) always tells you, ‘Be that spark. Make that play.’ I felt like I was the spark.”
North Dakota’s Brady Oliveira rushed for 190 yards and two touchdowns, including a
68-yard burst for the Fighting Hawks’ initial score.
On defense, North Dakota was determined to take away the short passing game Idaho has relied on, frequently putting nine or 10 defenders within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. It forced the Vandals to stretch the field and Petrino had completions of 32 and 28 yards.
“They brought a lot of exotic blitzes,” said the Idaho quarterback, who was sacked three times. “Corner blitzes from 8 yards off the ball. Nobody does that.”
Trailing 27-17 midway through the fourth quarter, Idaho’s Jalen Hoover blocked his second punt of the season and
Connor Whitney corralled the loose ball and returned it 3 yards for a touchdown.
Hoover said he had to lobby Coach Petrino for the right to go after the ball.
“They were blocking down. I knew it would be a short edge. We just needed a little bit of speed going down there,” Hoover said. “I went up to coach and said, ‘I can go get it.’ He let me go.”
David Ungerer also came up big for the Vandals with nine catches for 72 yards and a first-half touchdown.
Senior running back Isaiah Saunders surpassed 2,000 career rushing yards with 94 yards on 17 carries. He also scored Idaho’s first points, taking a pitch from Petrino, sidestepping Lenny Nelson IV’s tackle in the defensive backfield and racing 43 yards down the sideline to the end zone.
Denzal Brantley and Kaden Elliss led the Vandals with eight tackles apiece. Brantley also had one tackle for loss and stopped a North Dakota drive in the first half with a pass interception.
In a postgame news conference, Paul Petrino started ticking off the game’s top performers but stopped.
“I should name every single kid. It was a heck of a team win, for sure,” he said.
The Vandals wind up their home schedule Saturday against Montana before going on the road for a final game at Florida.