Idaho football coach Robb Akey won't lie: Saturday's game against Hawaii is huge as the Vandals seek to become bowl eligible for the first time in a decade.
That's after years of being considered the doormat of major college football.
"This is big for us," Akey said. "We're hoping this will be the one that gets us to bowl eligibility, yes."
Idaho (5-1, 2-0 WAC) is already one of the surprise teams in college football. The Vandals hadn't won five games in a season since 2000, when Tom Cable was their coach. They haven't had a winning season since 1999. Picked by many pundits to finish last in the Western Athletic Conference, the Vandals are first, ahead of archrival No. 5 Boise State.
People are starting to notice. The Vandals received their first-ever regular season vote in the AP Top 25 last week, after their come-from-behind victory at San Jose State.
A full house is expected in the 16,000-seat Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho, where Vandal fever is on the upswing.
Hawaii (2-3, 0-2) is slumping since losing starting quarterback Greg Alexander to a season-ending injury. The Warriors were pummeled 42-17 last weekend at Fresno State for their third straight loss.
But they are still dangerous. Backup quarterback Bryant Moniz threw for 283 yards and two touchdowns, and receiver Greg Salas continues to lead the nation with 136 yards per game.
"Our new quarterback came into a tough situation and did a good job," Hawaii coach Greg McMackin said. "I like his poise. I like his accuracy."
McMackin is worried about his defense. Idaho is one of the best rushing teams in the West, with a trio of running backs capable of going for 100 yards in a game. The Warriors rank near the bottom in rushing defense, allowing 201 yards per game.
"We're pretty beat up on the defensive line," McMackin said. "We've got to get our younger kids in a better position to make plays."
McMackin said he is a fan of what the Vandals have accomplished.
"They are sound in every phase of the game," McMackin said of Idaho. "I have nothing but praise and admiration for them."
Idaho came from behind to beat San Jose State 29-25 last weekend, behind 501 yards of offense. Princeton McCarty ran for 125 yards against the Spartans, while DeMaundray Woolridge added 93 yards and two touchdowns, and Deonte Jackson produced 57 yards on just eight carries.
Quarterback Nathan Enderle threw for 216 yards, but was intercepted three times. He was yanked for the final, game-winning drive, with Brian Reader coming in to hand the ball off to McCarty and Woolridge. But Enderle remains the starter, Akey said.
Of Idaho's remaining six games, five are against teams with losing records. Boise State (6-0) is probably the toughest remaining game.
Akey, in his third year, said he expected his team to be better than predictions. But he understands it was easy for people to write off the Vandals after a decade of futility.
"The whole outside world was telling us `You can't do that stuff yet,"' Akey said of the low expectations.
"They weren't around our practices every day," Akey said. "We are better than people thought we were.
"There might be a little chip on our shoulder," he added.
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