It took a last minute, six-play, 73-yard drive for Louisiana-Monroe to score the game-winning touchdown and edge out Idaho, 38-31 Saturday in Monroe, Louisiana.
In its second attempt at opening its season, Idaho braved a two-hour lightning delay and proved itself worthy of competing in the Sun Belt.
Idaho opens home play Saturday in the Kibbie Dome against Western Michigan, so lightning delays won’t be an issue for the first time this season.
“I was really proud of the players,” Idaho coach Paul Petrino said after the ULM game. “I told them in the locker room afterward that I think this was a big step forward in us getting this program where we need to get it. I thought they fought their tails off the whole game.”
Idaho had its chance to win. The offense took possession with just under two minutes left with the game tied, but the drive was over before it started. A holding call on first down made it hard to get anything going, and three downs later, Idaho punted.
“In the end, we just didn’t execute,” Petrino said. “That’s really what killed us. We got a seven-yard gain on first down, but got a holding penalty and that put us in a hole and then we let them go down and score.”
Petrino said the 13 penalties Idaho committed were costly. ULM finished with two and he said that kind of difference makes it tough to win.
While Idaho’s defensive line provided pressure and finished with three sacks, the defense still struggled. ULM quarterback Pete Thomas finished 24-of-44 passing for 384 yards and two touchdowns. ULM running back Centarius Donald rushed for 111 yards and three touchdowns.
Despite the flaws, Idaho had a chance to win late in the fourth quarter — something it hasn’t been able to say in recent years. The offense showed signs of improvement in spring and fall camps, and now proved it can produce against other teams.
Petrino might have found his quarterback too. Prior to the game, Petrino said he would go with the hot hand. Redshirt freshman Matt Linehan got the start and his play kept sophomore Chad Chalich on the bench.
Linehan led the Vandals on a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive early in the first quarter to put Idaho up by a touchdown. He finished 26-of-47 passing for 324 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.
“I thought Matt played awesome, thought he played his butt off,” Petrino said. “He competed unbelievable. It was a tough day, but we took a couple steps forward and now we just have to get on the plane, take a long ride home and get our butts ready to go for next week.”