The last time Idaho and North Dakota met in college football was in 1954, when the Vandals handed the Fighting Sioux a 45-0 loss in old Neale Stadium.
Tonight in the Kibbie Dome, Idaho proved that history does repeat itself.
Backed by the Vandals’ best defensive performance in more than a decade, Idaho knocked out the Fighting Sioux, 45-0 — a score identical to the mark set 56 years ago.
Apart from a busted drive to open the game, the Vandals (1-0) pretty much had their way with North Dakota (0-1), a Football Championship Subdivision team from the Great West Football Conference. Seven of 14 Idaho drives led to scores, six of them touchdowns.
Senior quarterback Nate Enderle shook off a string of early sacks to throw for 311 yards and two scores on 24-of-37 passing, while backup Brian Reader racked up another 88 yards and one touchdown. Just under 12,000 fans cheered the Vandals’ first home-opening win since 1998.
Probably more important than the Vandals’ big offensive numbers, however, was the absence of any points on the other side of the scoreboard. After a bowl-winning 2009 season that was marred by an unending string of defensive lapses, senior safety Shiloh Keo said his unit was determined to redeem itself this year. In coming up with Idaho’s first shutout since 1997 — albeit against an FCS team — he felt a corner has been turned.
“It’s taken five years but we finally threw out a goose egg,” Keo said. “We have a long way to go and there were mistakes made out there, but we believe this can be a great defense. We were able to show a glimpse of that tonight.”
Keo led the way with deeds, not words. His seven solo tackles were a team-high, and twice when North Dakota threatened to put points on the board, Keo came up with game-changing turnovers.
Midway through the third quarter, with the Fighting Sioux driving just outside the Vandals’ red zone, Keo stripped the ball from UND receiver Josh Murray. Then, with North Dakota on Idaho’s 14-yard line early in the fourth, Keo cut inside Fighting Sioux quarterback Jake Landry’s would-be touchdown pass, picked it off and took off running. His 44-yard return set up a 54-yard touchdown bomb from Reader to Armauni Johnson on the next play from scrimmage.
“Shiloh is a kid who loves to play the game,” Idaho coach Robb Akey said. “Look at the way he’s playing — he always wants to go, he’s hurdling guys, he’s a riverboat gambler. I love the style and energy he brings and I’d like to see more of that from all our players.”
Key to the defense’s improvement, Keo said, is an increase in depth at virtually every position. With defensive coordinator Mark Criner able to rotate more skilled bodies into the mix, fatigue is less of a factor.
“I trust the second and third guys behind me to make basic plays and big plays,” Keo said. “We haven’t had that in the five years I’ve been here.”
Taking every season one game at a time, Akey said he’s heartened by the fact that the Vandals are unbeaten and un-scored upon after their first game. But he rattled off a litany of weak points in his team’s performance that he said must be patched up before the Vandals take on nationally-ranked powerhouse Nebraska next Saturday in Lincoln.
Those flaws — which included a slew of penalty markers and pass-protection breakdowns — will be subject to ruthless exploitation by one of the country’s top teams in a little over a week.
“I saw out there how much better we need to be next week and how much better we’re capable of performing,” Akey said. “We might have set a world record for penalties in this game and that’s not acceptable. A lot of those were bonehead penalties, too, which irritates me. But that’s what a first game is about, and now we have a sense of urgency to get those cleaned up.”
Given the major losses on the offensive line — including guard Mike Iupati, an All-American, first-round NFL draft pick and now starter for the San Francisco 49ers — it wasn’t a surprise that the Vandals’ front five struggled in their first game together.
What was surprising, however, was how much they struggled. Giving up four sacks in the first half to an FCS front line does not bode well when Idaho must face tough Football Bowl Subdivision competitors for the remaining 12 games of the regular season.
“We’ve got to improve the way we protect our quarterback. There were way too many sacks and hits out there,” Akey admitted.
Part of the game plan to deal with an unsettled offensive line apparently involves more quick passes and screens, as those figured heavily in offensive coordinator Steve Axman’s play selection.
“A lot of the problems we had up front were just miscommunication,” Enderle said. “They had their assignments down but they’d leave a gap. We’ll get that cleaned up, and I think as soon as they see the film they’ll know where they went wrong.”
The Vandals will celebrate tonight, Akey said, but turn their attention to the Cornhuskers tomorrow. Idaho will face Nebraska on the 11th, with kickoff set for 9:30 a.m. Pacific.
Running back Deonte Jackson appeared to sprain his ankle on a Wildcat play in the first half, but returned for one series and looked good before taking a seat for the remainder of the game. Offensive linesman Tyrone Novikoff suffered cramps in the third quarter and was also held out afterwards as a precaution. Safety Gary Walker came out early with turf toe. All three are expected to be ready to play next week.