The Vandals had every opportunity to win on Saturday afternoon, but could not finish the game against Western Michigan.
Idaho showed a lot of promising signs of growth balanced out with habitual problems early in the game. The offense got off to a faster start than usual, recording a first down on their first drive for the first time this season and establishing an effective balance between the run and pass. However, the Vandals once again had problems with untimely turnovers, with a strip sack giving Western Michigan an excellent opportunity deep in Vandal territory. As they have all year, the defense held strong in the face of unfortunate circumstances and allowed only a field goal.
Once the Vandals put the first turnover behind them, it seemed as if they would have no trouble taking control of the game. Senior quarterback Matt Linehan recovered from his earlier fumble to find junior running back Aaron Duckworth in the flat, and Duckworth scampered 60 yards downfield to set the Vandals up to score. Linehan found sophomore tight end Joe Wysocki in the end zone to return the momentum to Idaho.
The defense was clearly feeling that momentum shift, and forced a three and out on the next Bronco drive to get the ball back in the hands of the Vandal offense. And once again, it was Duckworth who got the offense going. He took a handoff up the middle and it seemed as if the defense parted, but once again he was tripped up just short of the goal line. Three plays later, Linehan was again able to finish the drive and found junior wideout David Ungerer for a two-yard touchdown.
As the first half came to a close with the Vandals up 14-6, it seemed as if Idaho had a clear path to dominating the game. The defense held steady and the offense was coming up with huge chunk plays to keep the Broncos’ defense on its heels.
Any semblance of a plan went out the window in the second half.
Throughout the first half, the Vandals were able to hold strong on special teams, but the Broncos’ Darrius Phillips proved why he is considered one of the most electrifying players in college football. Phillips was able to return two consecutive Idaho punts for more than 40 yards, putting Western Michigan inside Vandal territory to start their drives. The Broncos capitalized on both opportunities, using only a combined 23 seconds of clock to reach the end zone twice and make the score 19-14 Broncos.
The Vandals bounced right back to shift the momentum again. Linehan dove into the end zone on a quarterback option to put the Vandals back on top, and lofted a beautiful pass to senior receiver Alfonso Onunwor on the next drive to put the Vandals up 28-19.
Unfortunately, Idaho’s strong showing did not continue through the fourth quarter.
Linehan’s first pass of the fourth quarter was picked off, and it was mostly downhill from there. Bronco quarterback Jon Wassink led his team on a methodical drive down field that ended in a 22-yard touchdown run for the sophomore. A short Vandal punt gave the Broncos great field position, and Western Michigan took the lead for good on another touchdown run from Wassink.
The Broncos won by a final score of 37-28.
Matt Linehan was responsible for all four of Idaho’s touchdowns, but also threw an interception and fumbled twice. The Vandals had plenty of production from their run game, with Duckworth and junior running back Isaiah Saunders combining for 162 yards on the ground.
“We have to find a way to win that game in the fourth quarter,” Idaho head coach Paul Petrinosaid in a news release. “The first three quarters was by far the best football we’ve played, but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t finish.”
The Vandals begin conference play next weekend with South Alabama 11 a.m. Sept. 23 in Mobile, Alabama.
Jonah Baker can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jonahpbaker