For years, Idaho has been ranked among the worst major college
football programs in the nation.
Not this season.
The Vandals (4-1, 1-0) are the surprise of the Western Athletic
Conference. They are off to their best start in 15 years and gunning for their first bowl game since 1998.
Fans packed the 16,000-seat Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho, on
Saturday for a stirring 31-29 win over Colorado State that was
televised by ESPNU (at Idaho, that's like being on NBC). The
Vandals are no longer an automatic W for nearly everyone who plays them.
"The Vandal faithful have been hungry," coach Robb Akey said.
"It's been a decade since we went to a bowl game here."
The Vandals' next step toward bowl eligibility is Saturday at
San Jose State (1-3, 0-0).
"We are playing the hottest team in the league," said San Jose
State coach Dick Tomey. "They have come farther and accomplished more this young season than any team in the league."
The Vandals are among the nation's top passing teams behind
three-year starter Nathan Enderle, who is completing 64 percent of his passes and has thrown for eight touchdowns and three
interceptions. His favorite targets are Max Komar (25 catches, 408 yards), Eric Greenwood (19 catches, 289 yards) and Preston Davis (14 catches, 174 yards).
The Vandals also have a good rush behind three solid running
backs. DeMaundray Woolridge, an academic casualty at Washington State who sat out the past two years, is making the most of his new opportunity by rushing for 356 yards and an average of 6.2 yards per carry. Princeton McCarty has 206 yards and a 5.4 average.
Deonte Jackson, a former 1,000-yard rusher, has 112 yards so far.
They benefit from big holes created by Outland Trophy candidate Mike Iupati, a 330-pound senior, and other veterans on the offensive line.
The defense is led by safety Shiloh Keo, the WAC defensive
player of the week after making 15 tackles and intercepting a pass to seal the win over Colorado State in the closing seconds.
The Vandals beat WAC rival New Mexico State in their season
opener, lost at Washington, then pummeled San Diego State, Northern Illinois and Colorado State.
The Vandals are tied with bitter rival No. 6 Boise State and
Louisiana Tech for first place, although league play is just getting started.
Boise State a decade ago eclipsed Idaho as the premier college
football program in the state. Broncos coach Chris Petersen
welcomed an Idaho resurgence.
"I think we're always rooting for the teams in our league when
they are playing outside of our conference," Petersen said. "I
like it when we are all winning."
The Vandals seem well-positioned to reach a bowl. They have
already won twice on the road, and four of their remaining seven
games are at home. Four of their upcoming opponent have just one win so far this season.
"Since day one of fall camp, coach has been preaching that our
goal is to go to a bowl game," Komar said, "so that's what we've
got our eyes set on right now."
Idaho is based in isolated Moscow, a town of 18,000 about 85
miles south of Spokane, Wash. They built a proud tradition in the 1980s and 1990s as a Division I-AA power, and made the jump to major college level in 1996. After a couple seasons of success, the wheels came off.
In recent years, they are perhaps best known for a coaching
carousel that includes current Oakland Raiders coach Tom Cable (11-35 at Idaho), former USC and current Washington assistant Nick Holt (5-18 at Idaho) and college and NFL coach Dennis Erickson (4-8 in 2006).
Erickson, who got his first college head coaching job at Idaho
from 1982-85, jumped to Arizona State after that season. Athletic director Rob Spear plucked Akey off the staff at neighboring Washington State.
Akey cleaned house of some of the questionable recruits of his
predecessors, and endured seasons of 1-11 and 2-10.
Idaho's feel-good start was in serious jeopardy in the Colorado
State game. They were behind 20-10 at halftime before Enderle keyed a big comeback in the third.
After Keo's interception with a minute left killed CSU's hopes,
Akey rushed up to the student section to celebrate with fans, then was carried off the field by his players.
"There is a lot more electricity around the program right now," he said. "I think we've woken the place up a little bit."