Idaho has really worked hard the past two week to establish an identities.
No, that isn't a typo. This has got to be the most Jekyll and Hyde team I have ever seen, and this time I watched them in person. That's right, my saint of a wife came with me and we watched Idaho, for the second consecutive week, blow a 20+ point lead en route to a loss. This team should be on the brink of bowl eligibility, yet suddenly they are teetering on the brink of not going to a bowl at all.
The Vandals came out gangbusters and looked like clearly the better team, as they raced out to a 24-0 lead with 6:51 left in the second quarter on the strength of Matt Linehan's 12-for-14 passing for 170 yards and two scores. It was just a game of "hey, Deon Watson, you run a go route and I'll get it to you." It was pretty ugly for the Jaguars defense.
Idaho had outgained South Alabama 273-33 at that point and had even notched a recovery of a fumbled punt to help their cause. The game couldn't have been more lopsided. By halftime, that yardage advantage was 286-149 and the lead had stayed at 24-7, as the Vandals had managed to keep USA from scoring any points at all on a drive where they were first-and-goal from the six.
Then, well, Paul Petrino appeared to spend the second half getting out-coached, pretty much.
By the end of the third quarter, the yardage advantage for Idaho had grown to 377-177, but their lead was only 31-28 thanks to allowing the Jaguars to take the second half kickoff 104 yards for a score, as well as a fumble return for a touchdown. Let me show you a great way to piss away a three-score lead:
What you are looking at there is Petrino's offensive acumen. On back-to-back third quarter drives, the Vandals found themselves in (roughly) third-and-20 and on both occasions, they ran the ball.
Right. Up. The middle.
I understand that the weather was not phenomenal and that perhaps a pass is a bit of a risk at that point. However, it is also true that, as of the execution of that first third down play I just listed, Elijhaa Penny had carried the ball 21 times for only 46 yards since gaining 25 yards on his first two carries of the game.
So those were both essentially an admission that Petrino knew the run game was not doing much other than keeping the South Alabama defense honest, yet he was still too timid to pass the ball on third-and-clearly-you-should-pass.
Unsurprisingly, this led to a lot of short drives and a defense that slowly began to unravel at the seams. A team that had only surrendered 177 total yards in the first three quarters allowed 164 yards on the ground alone in the fourth. This included Xavier Johnson cobbling together 120 yards on his last three carries of the game.
Idaho's offense showed a lot of positives, as they have every week. It's no small feat to see that over the last three weeks, Matt Linehan has thrown for 939 yards and seven touchdowns while Penny has rushed for 511 yards and four touchdowns while adding another 82 yards and a touchdown in the receiving game. The rapport that Linehan and Watson (11 catches for 189 yards and 4 TDs) in that span will serve the Vandals well as they get Dezmon Epps back next week in what will likely be a win against Texas State.
It's just a shame that these lopsided performances kept the Vandals from winning two very winnable games, and will know almost certainly keep them out of a bowl game. Because there is no way they are going to beat Appalachian State and Auburn.
For South Alabama, it's a quick turnaround as they will play another home game Thursday night against Louisiana-Lafayette. They'll have the upper hand in that they're at home and the Cajuns are travelling, so it's a toss-up. That said, it's a game they need to win so that they can avoid the possibility of needed to finish the season with wins over both Georgia Southern and App State to go bowling again.