Sun Belt

Idaho halfway to reaching its bowl aspirations after close win

Idaho wide receiver Callen Hightower celebrates after scoring against UNLV in overtime of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, in Las Vegas. Idaho won 33-30. (AP Photo/John Locher)
AP Photo/John Locher

The first three weeks of the season were brutal for Idaho. A lackluster win over Montana State and straight beatdowns by Washington and Washington State put the Vandals on the backburner of Sun Belt Conference teams that could make it to a bowl game.

Now, three weeks later, there’s a real possibility that Idaho may not just be bowl eligible, but it could be in the thick of the SBC title race. Saturday’s thrilling 34-31 win over Louisiana-Monroe could be the springboard to put the Vandals in the mix.

Austin Rehkow, who is probably the best kicker in the country that you never heard of, connected on all four of his field goal attempts in the game, including the game-winning 27-yarder as time expired to give the Vandals the win.

The Idaho defense forced three interceptions and one fumble against ULM, including one that may have saved the game. Early in the fourth quarter, cornerback Russell Saivii picked off a pass at the Idaho 3-yard line to keep ULM from taking the lead.

Idaho started out hot thanks to a strong opening drive and two interceptions, which were converted to three Rehkow field goals. Then after a blocked punt was returned for a touchdown, the Vandals had a 16-0 lead after the first quarter.

But ULM outscored Idaho 21-8 in the second quarter to cut the lead to 24-21 at the half, and got a field goal midway in the third quarter to tie the game. Idaho then regained the lead on a 71-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matt Linehan to wideout Jordan Frysinger to put the Vandals back ahead.

ULM showed resilience despite the loss that dropped the Warhawks to 1-4. A 30-yard pass from quarterback Garrett Smith to receiver Ajalen Holley with 2:28 left in the game evened the game before a  67-yard drive by Idaho set up Rehkow’s game-winner.

The win for Idaho means that the Vandals are halfway to reaching bowl eligibility. And the road ahead isn’t easy, but it isn’t super difficult either. Next up for UI is a New Mexico State squad that can put up points, but are not the best defensive team. If the Idaho defense can keep up with creating turnovers and getting some big stops, it should be able to beat the Aggies at home in Moscow.

However, the Vandals have a couple of tough road tests that they may not work in their favor. Trips to Appalachian State and Louisiana-Lafayette are not easy and expect to see Idaho struggle in those.

Meaning that three games in November will be the decider on whether Idaho goes bowling or not. A road trip to Texas State is the first one, with the Bobcats being a question mark if they will improve on being a decent team or falling apart due to youth and frustration.

Following that, Idaho hosts South Alabama, a team that has had highs of beating Mississippi State and San Diego State, but losing two SBC games already and almost falling to an FCS squad in Nicholls State. The Jaguars are a tough matchup for Idaho since their pass defense is pretty strong, but if Linehan continues to improve and get comfortable at home, Idaho can have an edge in this one.

The last game of the season against Georgia State will be tough despite the Panthers’ offensive struggles. GSU has the best pass defense in the Sun Belt and will make things tough on Linehan, but if running backs Callen Hightower and Aaron Duckworth can hold their own against a porous GSU run defense, the Vandals should be the favorite to win this game.

With the Vandals scheduled to drop to the FCS after the 2017 season, making a bowl game either this season or next is a high goal for head coach Paul Petrino and his team. The Vandals want to show that even though their stay in the FBS has been rocky, they are a team that is getting better and destined to do big things.

But to get to a bowl, Idaho has to hope the last three weeks of the season aren’t like the first three weeks of the season.

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