In his introductory press conference back in December last year first-year head coach Jason Eck called his Idaho team “sleeping giants”. Those words rang true all season as the once-lowly Vandals turned it around and won seven games this season and, more significantly, made the playoff cut for the first time since moving back down the FCS; not an easy feat in the Big Sky.
It was a bumpy start for Idaho. On the first play, freshman quarterback Gevani McCoy connected with receiver Hayden Hatten over the middle for what looked like a big gain. Hatten, though, was hit and fumbled the ball away. SLU’s __ Henderson picked it up and just like that the Lions had the ball.
The Vandals defense stiffened, though, and forced a punt to give McCoy and Hatten a second chance. This time, McCoy got Idaho’s offense down inside the red zone where running back Roshaun Johnson pushed his way in from a yard out.
Now trailing 7-0, it was up to Cephun Johnson and the Lions to respond and respond they did. Johnson led a 12-play drive that wound up in the end zone to knot things up. Johnson called his own number and ran in for a two-yard score.
Idaho reclaimed the lead early in the second quarter. McCoy led a quick drive thanks to a big pass to Hatten that set the Vandals up at the SLU 11-yard line. Two plays later McCoy ran it in himself for a three-yard touchdown.
After the Lions added a field goal, UI extended its advantage to 11 points with a scoring run from Anthony Woods. The freshman found his way over the chalk for a five-yard scamper and Idaho led 21-10.
Johnson continued the back-and-forth swing with a lengthy 12-play excursion in which SLU converted two third downs. With just 29 seconds left until halftime, Carlos Washington Jr. pushed over the goal line from two yards out to cut the deficit to just four points. As the two teams headed into the locker room, Idaho was on top 21-17.
The third quarter started with a Southeastern Louisiana punt but, despite getting the stop on defense, Idaho had to do the same shortly after and boot the ball back. Johnson marched the Lions down to the UI 19-yard line but it was running back Jessie Britt who threw the go-ahead touchdown pass. Britt hit Nick Kovacs to give SLU its first lead of the night at 24-21.
McCoy was looking to respond yet again but late in the third quarter SLU defensive back Donniel Ward-Magee intercepted him to thwart the momentum and kill the drive. Shortly after, Johnson rushed for a 25-yard score to make it a nine-point game.
When Idaho needed a spark most, however, Jermaine Jackson gave it to them on special teams. Jackson corralled the ensuing kick and burst free on a 95-yard runback all the way to the end zone to silence the energized crowd in Hammond.
With the tides of the game turning, the Vandals were able to steal back the lead with Hatten’s first touchdown of the evening. He hauled in a 34-yard pass from McCoy and with 9:15 to go Idaho was up 33-30. As was the pattern of the game, Johnson and the Lions volleyed right back. The rebuttal was Washington’s second score of the night, a one-yard TD run.
McCoy and the offense began their hopeful go-ahead drive but defensive back Zy Alexander had other plans. He jumped in front of McCoy’s pass and jolted 48 yards the other way for the big defensive score before a loud reception by the home fans. It seemed like it was the play that finally broke Idaho’s back.
Just as he had done before, though, Jackson delivered when the Vandals so desperately needed it. McCoy lofted a deep pass to the sprinting Jackson who got behind the SLU defense and ran untouched into the end zone for a 70-yard touchdown. There was only 3:23 left and now trailing just 45-42, UI needed a stop.
They got that stop when Fa’Avae Fa’Avae brought down Johnson for no gain on third down. As if it wasn’t heart-stopping enough for the Lions and their fans, All-American punter Austin Dunlap shanked the punt off the side of his foot and it only sailed 18 yards. Idaho had tremendous field position and a chance.
McCoy hit Hatten for a big gain to get on Southeastern Louisiana’s side of the field. It was a flag, though, is what ultimately got the Vandals into field goal position. An untimely facemask penalty on linebacker Arien Williams moved the ball up to the 22-yard line. Ricardo Chavez trotted out for the 39-yard attempt, undoubtedly the biggest of his career.
In a cruel turn of events, Chavez, after making the try that didn’t count because of a timeout by SLU head coach Frank Scelfo, slipped running up on his second try and the kick sailed wide. Southeastern Louisiana, by the slimmest of margins, had survived.
It wasn’t for lack of trying on McCoy’s part. The freshman signal caller ended the night with 343 yards and two touchdowns but his two interceptions proved to be costly. Hatten came out with 209 yards and Jackson was behind him with 111. Each had a touchdown catch.
Britt led the way for the Lions rushers with 106 yards while Johnson threw for 208 yards on 18 completed passes. The Southeastern Louisiana defense forced three turnovers despite giving up 617 yards of total offense.
The Lions now will get ready for a road trip to take on Samford next weekend.