Down big at the half in three of their last four victories, the Idaho Vandals have become known for clutch plays and huge comebacks. But tonight in the Kibbie Dome against Fresno State, Idaho finally found itself all out of miracles.
NCAA-leading rusher Ryan Mathews went 77 yards to the house on the opening play, the Vandals’ offense sputtered early and the Bulldogs held off another valiant last-minute comeback effort to beat Idaho, 31-21.
Fresno State (6-3, 4-1 WAC) opened with Mathews’ longest run of the season and didn’t let up until the game was well in hand. The Bulldogs ruthlessly picked apart Idaho’s defense, scoring on four of their five first-half drives to open a 24-0 lead at the break. Quarterback Ryan Colburn didn’t miss a single pass all night, connecting on 14 of 14 attempts for 159 yards and a touchdown.
With just 8 minutes left in the game, the Vandals (7-3, 4-2 WAC) looked poised to make another miracle comeback. Fresno State’s lead was cut to 16 and Idaho was driving deep into Bulldog territory looking to make it a one-score game. But tailback DeMaundray Woolridge coughed up the ball near the red zone and Pat Hill’s squad was able to burn enough clock on the ensuing possession to seal the victory.
Idaho coach Robb Akey said his squad dug itself much too deep of a hole to climb out of.
“I’m disappointed, very disappointed. We did not play good football tonight,” Akey said. “A good football team can’t spot another good football team. We can’t let them get in front of us that much that early in the ball game.”
The Vandals were forced to start Brian Reader at quarterback for the first time. First-stringer Nathan Enderle was sidelined with a bruised rotator cuff suffered against Louisiana Tech. Reader finished strongly, ending with 240 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 12-25 passing, along with his first rushing touchdown.
But the game’s opening half was a rough introduction to the starting job for Reader, who completed just two passes for 29 yards in the first 30 minutes of play. Idaho’s drive chart looked thusly: missed field goal, punt, punt, punt, punt. The Vandals managed just 118 yards of offense to the Bulldogs’ 248.
To be fair, not all the blame falls on Reader — several catchable passes were dropped or mishandled by the Vandals’ receiving corps, which appeared to be struggling to come to grips with his passing style. The result, however, was the same: incompletions, stalled drives and a zero on the scoreboard for the half. That’s the first time this season Idaho has failed to score in the first half, and only the second scoreless half of the year.
“We had a lot of penalties and mistakes in the first half,” Reader said. “There was nothing unexpected, we knew what was coming, we just weren’t executing.”
In the second half, Reader appeared to get in sync with his receivers, connecting on 10 of 15 attempts, including 14- and 69-yard touchdown strikes to Max Komar and Maurice Shaw. Idaho’s defense also stiffened up, allowing just a single touchdown from the Bulldogs’ offense. But the damage was already done.
Akey praised Reader’s performance at quarterback, rejecting the idea that he was to blame for the offense’s slow start.
“No, I think Brian did a damn good job. He got himself going, took some shots, made some plays and ran in for a touchdown,” Akey said. “Our troubles were execution, and it didn’t have anything to do with the quarterback.”
Defensive end Aaron Lavarias, who again faced reporters’ questions about the Vandals’ struggles on defense, made no excuses for his unit’s performance. He credited the Bulldogs’ powerhouse offense for simply playing better than the Vandals could handle.
“Some of the young guys out there might be struggling to adjust to the speed of the game. You can’t really replicate Fresno State with our scout team,” Lavarias said. “We played really bad football for the first half, and that’s not offset by the good football we played later on.”
The Vandals head to Boise on Saturday for their final road game of the year, a renewal of the intra-state rivalry against the Boise State Broncos. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Mountain time, 12:30 Pacific.