You’d be hard-pressed to find an FCS team with a more tumultuous run than the Idaho Vandals. Between successful seasons of the 1980s and 1990s to a move up to the FBS which failed by nearly every metric and then a subsequent move back down, Idaho has put its fans through a lot over the years. In all that time, the Vandals have never reached the FCS’ pinnacle nor have they ever even played in the subdivision’s championship game. This Saturday, though, could be the first step in changing that.
The last time a playoff game was played in Moscow was clear back in 1993 when Boston University made the trip to the Kibbie Dome for the quarterfinals of that year’s tournament. It was a game Idaho won 21-14 thanks to 188 passing yards and a touchdown from Doug Nussmeier. Since then times have changed quite a lot. The Vandals have played 31 years of FBS ball and Boston U’s football program has gone defunct. Idaho has taken the field in a bowl game more recently than a home playoff game.
That changes in three days.
Head coach Jason Eck has done a job that’s second to none in rebuilding the program and has done so in a hurry. After serving as an assistant at numerous places including Montana State and South Dakota State, Eck picked up his first head coaching gig in Moscow and has transformed the Vandals into a contender. Under his leadership, Idaho has gone 15-8 over the last two seasons and has only lost four conference games in that span, not an easy feat in the Big Sky. This will be the second straight year that Idaho had been a playoff team under Eck.
Part of Eck's genuis has been constructing one of the more electric offenses in the country. Sophompre quarterback Gevani McCoy has been a vital piece to what the Vandals like to do. The 2022 Jerry Rice Award winner has already thrown 42 touchdowns in his collegiate career and has eclipsed 5,000 passing yards. McCoy is one of the best there is at using his legs to extend plays and tire defensive lines out. Even more than that, though, he has the best receiver in the Big Sky on the receiving end of his passes.
Hayden Hatten may be the best wideout the conference has seen since Cooper Kupp at Eastern Washington. The All-American junior is a nightmare for opposing secondaries, having hauled in nine touchdowns this year (33 career). Hatten has found the end zone in every game since Week 6 and 15 yards away from breaking 1,000 for a second straight year.
Of course Hatten and McCoy will need to have one of their signature video game-like performances this weekend when Southern Illinois rolls in. The Salukis are a stout team on both sides of the ball and have a pretty darn QB on their sideline too in senior Nic Baker. But, Idaho has something that SIU won't: a juiced up crowd with three decades worth of playoff build up ready to erupt. Throw in the fact that this game has been picked up linear TV (ESPN2) and you've got a recipe for an unforgettable night in the Kibbie Dome if all goes according to plan.
Saturday evening could very well serve as a coronation of sorts for the Vandals. 30 years of hard times appear as though they've come to an end and if Eck's squad can punch its ticket to the quarterfinals (a game they would host also) it will be a moment that will live on in Moscow for a good long time.
If Idaho wins, it will face the winner of Richmond and Albany next weekend.