At halftime, Sun Belt Conference defending champion Georgia Southern hadn’t run the Idaho Vandals out of the building. Instead, the Vandals and the Dads’ Weekend crowd were in the game.
Idaho entered the third quarter down 16-13 but the Eagles quickly showed why they went undefeated in conference play last season.
The Eagles outscored the Vandals 28-7 in the second half and won 44-20 Saturday night at the Kibbie Dome.
“For a half, we went toe-to-toe with the best team in the league,” Idaho coach Paul Petrino said.
The Eagles started fast in the third quarter. Junior running back Matt Breida scored on a 66-yard run and later freshman running back Wesley Fields reached the end zone on a two-yard score to put Georgia Southern up 30-13 with 6:14 left in the third quarter.
“There was definitely times in the game I thought our defense played way better,” Petrino said. “We gave up a couple of those big plays.”
Idaho sophomore safety Jordan Grabski and sophomore cornerback Armond Hawkins each made 10 tackles.
“I thought just watching from the sideline he made a bunch of tackles and played really hard,” Petrino said of Hawkins. “It looked like he played very well.”
The Vandals (1-3 overall, 0-1 Sun Belt) scored two touchdowns in the game but the crowd erupted on each one.
Idaho sophomore quarterback Matt Linehan hooked up with senior wide receiver Dezmon Epps on a 60-yard touchdown in the second quarter and then Epps got behind the defense again and Linehan found him for a 44-yard touchdown strike in the third quarter. The second Idaho touchdown cut the Georgia Southern lead to 30-20 with 4:19 left in the third quarter.
“I thought the momentum would have switched to our side but it really didn’t because we didn’t make enough plays after that big catch,” Idaho senior running back Elijhaa Penny said. “We didn’t get enough momentum and we didn’t take advantage of Dez scoring on a big play.”
Petrino was confident after Epps’ second touchdown of the game.
“When we cut it to 10 points in that third quarter I thought we’re going to steal this thing,” Petrino said … “I thought it was going good the whole first half. I felt good. Definitely going into halftime felt good and then it got away from us.”
Epps had another big day. He hauled in eight passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns.
“He had a couple nice plays,” Petrino said of Epps. “Matt made a couple nice throws.”
The Vandals trailed 30-20 toward the end of the third quarter when Idaho tried to convert a fourth and 2 at its own 42 with a fake punt.
Idaho junior kicker/punter Austin Rehkow caught the long snap, rolled right and threw the ball to freshman tight end Will Schmidt. The ball just sailed over the reach of a Georgia Southern defender and bounced off Schmidt, who was right behind him, and the ball fell to the turf.
“I just felt like it was there,” Petrino said. “We saw it on tape. Felt like it was there and I think it was there. We just didn’t execute it.”
The Eagle running game continued to thrive late in the game as redshirt junior quarterback Kevin Ellison scored on a pair of fourth quarter touchdown runs to put the game out of reach.
Idaho failed to convert on a couple short yardage plays during the game.
“That’s something we usually work on all throughout the week,” Penny said. “We have short yardage periods that we really work on and we didn’t convert too well on short yardage so this week starting tomorrow we’ll get back to it on Sunday and get back to work and work hard on short yardage to convert.”
One of the plays in which Idaho failed to gain a couple yards was in the first quarter.
On third and goal from the 2-yard line, Penny was stopped at the 1.
The Idaho drive started after Idaho sophomore cornerback Dorian Clark made an interception near the sideline. The Vandals drove 93 yards on 15 plays but had to settle for an 18-yard field goal.
“We killed ourselves on short yardage,” Petrino said … “To win games, especially against good teams, you got to convert on short yardage no doubt.”
Idaho will continue Sun Belt play and will face Arkansas State (1-3) Saturday in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Garrett Cabeza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @CabezaGarrett