Vandal history was made Thursday night in Boise.
In below-freezing temperatures, on a slippery blue field, the Idaho football team defeated Colorado State 61-50 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl at Alberstons Stadium.
“I’ve never been more proud of a group of players,” Idaho head coach Paul Petrino said. “It was a great team victory and everyone stepped up for each other when they had to.”
The Sun Belt Conference is now 3-1 in bowl games – the conference’s first three-win bowl season.
A scoreless first quarter signaled a tough game. Then, the Vandal offense began firing on all cylinders.
The Rams struck first on a 52-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Nick Stevens to running back Dalyn Dawkins.
After the early deficit, Idaho found its footing.
Sophomore running back Isaiah Saunders powered to the end zone on a two-yard run to put Idaho within one. On the Vandals’ next drive, Saunders again found the bright orange end zone with a 26-yard run.
“I feel like my running today had a really big impact on the game and really drew the defense in so we could open up our pass game,” Saunders said.
The third touchdown of the second quarter came after an 18-play drive.
Junior quarterback Matt Linehan rolled right and found junior receiver Jacob Sannon, who slid forward to catch the pass.
At halftime, Idaho led 20-7.
Idaho capitalized after receiving the second half kickoff. Down on the goal line, Linehan scanned the field before pulling the ball down and taking off. A short seven yards later, Idaho had its fourth touchdown and a 27-7 lead.
After the Vandal defense forced a punt, Linehan sent the ball to senior tight end Deon Watson for 74 yards. Watson, who was wide-open running down the field, sped past defenders for a score.
The touchdown pass was the third longest in the Potato Bowl’s history.
The Rams came up with a stop two drives later and forced Idaho to punt. Receiver Robert Ruiz fumbled and graduate cornerback Kendrick Trotter flew in to recover for the Vandals.
Idaho took advantage of the short field with a 16-yard touchdown pass from Linehan to Sannon, putting the Vandals up 41-7.
Receiver Olabis Johnson responded with two receptions of 47 and 24 yards. Receiver Michael Gallup capitalized on a 12-yard touchdown catch shortly after.
The final quarter was filled with scoring by both teams.
Junior running back Aaron Duckworth broke free for 42 yards to reach the red zone. He powered through the Rams’ defensive front to score on the next play.
Stevens found a gap in Idaho’s secondary and targeted Johnson for a 73-yard bomb, ending with Johnson streaking into the end zone untouched.
Linehan answered with a bomb of his own to senior receiver Jordan Frysinger. With a defender between him and the ball, Frysinger reached around and caught the ball with one hand, secured it to his chest and ran in for a touchdown.
One play later, Stevens hit Gallup for 60 yards and a touchdown for the Rams.
Saunders earned his third touchdown with a 12-yard run after Colorado State failed to execute an onside kick.
Gallup provided another score for the Rams on a three-yard reception.
The Rams contained Idaho on the next drive to get the ball back, but Stevens was intercepted by senior cornerback Jayshawn Jordan before the offense could get back down the field.
Another Idaho punt gave Colorado State new life as Dawkins broke through for a 22-yard touchdown run.
Tailback Izzy Matthews scored the last points of the night on a short run. Idaho recovered the following onside kick to seal their bowl victory.
The win was Idaho’s third bowl title in the program’s history, with all three wins coming in Boise-based bowls.
Saunders led the run game for Idaho with 147 yards and three touchdowns. Saunders broke the school record for most yards in a bowl game, with 147.
Watson made Idaho history with five catches in a bowl game.
Linehan, after a rough start, went 21-of-31 for 381 yards and four touchdowns. He was selected as the game’s Most Valuable Player.
Idaho’s final score, 61, broke the Potato Bowl record for most points by one team, previously set by Georgia Tech with 52 points in 2003.
On defense, sophomore linebacker Tony Lashley led in tackles with eight.
Jordan earned his sixth interception of the season. He broke third place in the Idaho record books with 14 career interceptions.
Idaho ends the season 9-4 for the second time in school history and 2-0 against Mountain West teams. The Vandals were projected to lose by 15 points to the Rams.
“We were an underdog for everyone else in the country, but we weren’t an underdog in our locker room,” Petrino said. “We expected to win.”
Brandon Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @brandonmtnhill