Despite an outstanding defensive effort and jumping out to a 7-0 lead on the first series of the game, the Vandals (1-3 WAC, 1-6) suffered numerous Special Teams breakdowns and eventually fell 40-10 to WAC power Fresno State (3-0 WAC, 5-1) Saturday afternoon.
The first series of the game for Idaho was impressive. True freshman returner Wesley Williams received the opening kickoff at the 4 yard line and returned it to the Idaho 19. Junior quarterback Steve Wichman connected on his first 3 passes of the game (5 yards to Tracy Ford, 15 yards to Daniel Smith, and 7 more yards to Ford). Sophomore runningback Rolly Lumbala then blew up through the left side of the line and rumbled 45 yards to the Fresno State 9 yard line. From there, true freshman Jason Brown sealed the deal with a hard-fought 9 yard rush up the middle to give Idaho the lead. Barrow converted the PAT and Idaho was off with a 7-0 lead.
It was the first time Idaho had scored on its first possession in awhile. The plays were crisp and well-executed, and the result was a quick score to start the game.
Unfortunately, Fresno's first possession would showcase why their Special Teams units rank among the best in America. Barrow's kickoff went into the Fresno endzone and was caught by Bulldog return man Richard Marshall. Marshall then exploded out of the endzone and galloped up to the Fresno 47-yard line before being brought down in a TD-saving tackle.
Idaho didn't yield a score, but Special Teams would be the difference in this ball game, and this was just the beginning.
Despite excellent field position for the 'Dogs, the Vandal defense was stoic on this opening drive (as they would be all game) and forced a fumble five plays later that was recovered by senior linebacker Mike Anderson at the Idaho 40 yard line.
The Vandal offense, which would remain in check for much of the rest of the game against the Number One defense in the WAC, went three-and-out. Out came the punting unit for Idaho, which had not yielded a touchdown all season.
Not until this weekend anyway.
Barrow's punt was solid, sailing 43 yards to the Fresno 28 yard line before being caught by Joe Fernandez. But the Bulldogs showed why they came into this game with the #2 ranked punt return unit in the NATION (averaging 25.5 yards per return). Vandal coverage broke down and Fernandez didn't stop running until he crossed the Idaho goal line.
Fresno 7, Idaho 7.
Idaho's next offensive possession went 3-and-out. The punt team lined up at the Idaho 29 yard line, and this time the kick was blocked and returned for another Fresno TD.
Fresno 14, Idaho 7.
Both teams failed to make any significant progress on their next possession, but this time it would be the Bulldog punt team that would do the damage. With a high spiraling punt, Fresno was able to make the catch and down the ball at the Idaho 3-yard line. With their backs against the wall, the Idaho offense tried a run off the right side, but were tackled in the endzone for a safety.
Fresno 16, Idaho 7.
Later in the second quarter Idaho put together an offensive drive from their own 19 to the Fresno 33 before stalling. Idaho lined up for a field goal attempt, and junior Mike Barrow converted the 50-yarder, setting a new career-best mark for the junior and bumping his season average up to 80% for the year.
The Vandals went into the half down 16-10, and not a single point had been allowed by the defense.
In the third quarter, Idaho gave up 10 points to Fresno State. The 'Dogs scored a field goal after driving the length of the field before stalling at the Vandal 11 yard line. Again FSU's Special Teams would strike, this time blocking a Barrow punt and recovering the ball at Idaho 11-yard line. Fresno would go in for the touchdown a couple plays later.
The score at the end of the third quarter was 26-10, Fresno. Of the 26 points yielded in the first three quarters, 23 points came off of punt team miscues.
An amazing stat for a unit that had otherwise played well this season and not been scored upon.
In the fourth quarter, with the Vandal offense unable to mount a serious drive throughout the second half, the Idaho defense gave up a 62-yard TD run and a lengthy drive for another score.
Aside from the first possession of the game, the offense struggled to get anything going through the air or on the ground. Statistically, Idaho gained 139 yards rushing but lost 50 yards due in-part to Wichman being sacked 4 times. For the game Wichman completed 16 of 25 attempts with no TDs or interceptions for 92 yards.
As far as individual performances on the night, Barrow set a new career mark while senior middle linebacker Cole Snyder now leads the nation in solo tackles on the year (66), while he is tied at #8 nationally in total tackles on the season (88). As a unit the defense played admirably despite Fresno often starting with a relatively short field. They applied solid pressure (6 QB hurries including sacks by Snyder and senior defensive end Mike Bonelli) and kept the game close until the middle of the fourth quarter.
The team will need to regroup in a hurry as they head to Las Cruces this week for a matchup with New Mexico State (0-3 WAC, 0-7). The Aggies have played a brutal schedule (UTEP, Colorado, New Mexico, and Cal) and will be coming off a bye-week in preparation for Idaho.