BOISE — For Idaho, the calculus was simple: 28 seconds to go 66 yards for a Humanitarian Bowl-tying seven points. Either that, or make the long drive back to Moscow as losers.
But the Vandals, who were picked last in the Western Athletic Conference but stunned the football world by making their first bowl in a decade, redid the math.
The result is destined to be remembered as one of the greatest games in Idaho football history.
With just eight seconds to play, quarterback Nathan Enderle found Max Komar in the end zone from 16 yards out, and the Vandals’ leading wideout made a diving catch — his first of the night — for the score. Bring out Trey Farquhar, kick the extra point to tie and head for overtime, right?
Coach Robb Akey asked his players what they wanted to do. The unanimous decision? Go for two.
“If my players have confidence in the play, they’re going to make it work,” Akey said. “Why make everybody wait for overtime? Let’s get it done.”
Enderle took the snap, rolled left and spotted Preston Davis back by the goalpost. The veteran shot-caller heaved a strike across the middle, straight at the sophomore wideout.
Catch. Score. Wild celebration. Penalty flags. A streaker. Pandemonium.
Four seconds and a stuffed kickoff return later, a Vandal team dubbed the “Cardiac Kids” for their last-minute heroics became the 2009 Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl champions, defeating Bowling Green by the final score of 43-42. Idaho finishes the 2009 season with an 8-5 record.
The triumph is only the second bowl win in the history of the University of Idaho, following a 1998 victory over Southern Mississippi — also in the Humanitarian Bowl.
Many of the 26,726 fans in attendance — a heavily partisan Idaho crowd — charged the Bronco Stadium field to celebrate a comeback victory capping a comeback season. Defensive end Aaron Lavarias summed up the feeling for a team, a university and the long-suffering Vandal Nation.
“This is destiny,” he said. “Playing in our state’s capital in a stadium filled with Vandals, we were born to win this game.”
But they almost didn’t.
Led by record-breaking wideout Freddie Barnes, Bowling Green staged a comeback of its own in the second half after trailing by as many as 14. Then, with the game tied at 35 and just over 30 seconds remaining, Barnes got behind the Vandals’ secondary and took a 51-yard pass in for the go-ahead touchdown — a score that seemed sure to be the game-winning margin.
“That was just broken coverage by us and they executed better than we did,” Vandal safety Shiloh Keo admitted.
Idaho’s trademark this year has been last-minute comebacks, though — the game-winner against Louisiana Tech came with just 52 ticks left on the clock — and while Akey wasn’t pleased with having to launch yet another desperation drive, he wasn’t panicking, either.
“The team was fired up, and it didn’t take anything from me to get them going,” Akey said. “They have the belief they can come back from anything.”
Enderle led his offense out on the field and promptly connected on a 50-yard bomb to Davis, giving the Vandals 8 seconds to go 16 more yards.
“I knew we’d have to hit one shot quickly to have a chance and we got that on the first play,” Enderle said. “Preston was able to come down with the ball even after getting interfered with and that was big.”
A missed throw at Davis, and Komar got his shot at glory. The Vandals’ leading receiver had been off sync all night long, with balls slipping through his fingers, glancing off his chest and even bouncing off his helmet. It was looking to be his worst performance of the season at the worst possible time, but Enderle never lost faith. Enderle, who finished with 240 yards and four touchdowns on 15-for-28 passing, said Komar was his primary option on the play — a slant to the right flat of the end zone.
“When it matters, (Komar) is going to come through,” Enderle said.
The play was reviewed from the booth, but the officials upstairs confirmed that the senior had come up with the biggest catch of his career, just scooping the ball up before it hit the turf.
“It was a big relief off my back, being able to help my teammates out like that,” Komar said. “It wasn’t my best game but I saved the best for last.”
Bowling Green, which seemed to have the Mid-American Conference’s first bowl win since 2006 within its grasp, was left stunned on the sidelines as Vandal fans poured onto the blue turf. Coach Dave Clawson said his Falcons began celebrating too early and forgot about defending the Vandals’ desperation drive.
“When a team has 60 or 70 yards to go, you should win the game,” Clawson said. “But credit them to get the ball down the field and into the end zone and then convert on the 2-point conversion attempt. Their coach showed a lot of courage going for it and it paid off for them.”
For a game that was expected to be a high-scoring offensive explosion, the first half was dominated by defense. Idaho was forced to punt on five of its first six possessions, as the Vandals’ vaunted passing attack sputtered out — Enderle was just 5-for-14 for 55 yards after the first 30 minutes of play.
But the Falcons were largely unable to capitalize on the opportunity to put the game away, thanks to timely plays from a much-maligned Vandal defensive unit. Even Bowling Green’s early chip-shot field goal try went awry, as linebacker JoJo Dickson blocked Matt Norsic’s 24-yard kick and safety Jeromy Jones fell on the ball. The teams went into the locker room tied, but Idaho had all the momentum.
“We knew we had to get some stops and we did a pretty good job limiting their big plays,” Lavarias said. “I’d sure have liked to have had a more convincing win but as long as Idaho has more points at the end of the game, then that’s OK with me.”
Out of halftime, it seemed like Idaho was on its way to breaking the game open. The defense forced a 3-and-out from the Falcons’ opening drive, running back DeMaundray Woolridge bulldozed through for the go-ahead touchdown. Then Jones picked off Tyler Sheehan at the Bowling Green 27 — only the seventh pick of the season for the Falcon QB — and Woolridge converted with another ping-pong run into the end zone. All of a sudden, the Vandals had a two-score lead.
But the Falcons charged back with quick strikes, as the Vandals’ defense crumbled. Barnes, who secured the NCAA single-season receiving record with an amazing 17 catches for 219 yards, started exploiting an Idaho secondary that’s struggled all season, and his superlative play set up the frenetic finish.
Akey commandeered the stadium public address system after the game, thanking Vandal fans for sticking with the Silver and Gold through some of the program’s darkest hours. He told the press his players deserve credit, too — it’s never easy to play for a team that’s not winning.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our guys. They put in the hard work to take this team from where it was, winning three games in two years, to being a bowl champion,” Akey said. “That says everything about their determination and their character.”
Celebrating on the field with fans, friends and family, Dickson reflected on the end of a miracle season for the Vandals — a team picked to finish last in the WAC, a team that had won two games in three years, a team nobody believed in. That same team proved all the predictions wrong.
“This is a blessing and I give thanks to God,” Dickson said. “Our team worked hard all year just for this moment, we asked for it, we got the chance and we took it.”