Idaho and Bowling Green hope to end season on high
AP Sports Writer
BOISE, Idaho (AP) – At times during Robb Akey’s first two years at Idaho, it was understandable when the Vandals’ place in college football was questioned.
They were on their third coach since 2005. They won just three games in Akey’s first two seasons as he tried to weed out players who had little interest in his energetic, sometimes folksy style.
The idea that maybe Idaho wasn’t meant for the top level of college football didn’t seem farfetched.
“When we went to Utah for the conference media day and told people we were going to surprise this year we all said it confidently,” star Idaho guard Mike Iupati said. “We kind of knew we had a great team in front of us. We needed to use every skill we had to turn it around.”
All that grumbling was quieted this season with the Vandals (7-5) about to play in their second bowl game in school history when they face Bowling Green (7-5) in Wednesday’s Humanitarian Bowl. Idaho took advantage of a soft early schedule and started 6-1 with its only loss coming at Washington, before stumbling against the tougher foes in the latter half of the season.
A win over Bowling Green would give the Vandals just their second season with at least eight wins in the last 15 years.
Idaho dropped four of its final five, including an ugly 52-49 loss to Utah State in the finale that left a sour taste despite a postseason trip already secured.
The Vandals don’t want to spend the offseason trying to figure out how 6-1 became 7-6. They’re seeking momentum headed into a 2010 campaign that could go a long way in proving if Akey has brought stability and success back to the Idaho side of the Palouse.
“It’s very important. It’s a mindset that helps you. You don’t win that ballgame, you’ve got some digging to do again,” Akey said.
Wednesday’s matchup features two of the top talents in the country: Idaho’s Iupati and Bowling Green receiver Freddie Barnes.
Iupati, a first-team All-America selection, leads an Idaho offense that’s shown balance all season with a stable of three running backs balancing the passing of junior Nathan Enderle. In the two games Enderle missed with injury, the Vandals averaged just 23 points – eight below their average – and had eight of their 23 turnovers.
Enderle says he’s healthy after struggling with a sore shoulder late in the season, but the bigger key against Bowling Green will be Idaho’s tailback trio: De’Maundray Woolridge, Princeton McCarty and Deonte Jackson.
Individually, none had a spectacular season, aside from Woolridge’s surprising 16 touchdowns. But collectively, the three accounted for 1,839 yards rushing. The matchup with the Falcons isn’t expected to be a defensive clinic based on the points and yards both teams allowed this season, so establishing a solid ground game and controlling possession will be important for Idaho.
While Idaho brings balance, the Falcons are all about the pitch-and-catch combo of quarterback Tyler Sheehan and the record-setting Barnes. They’ve been beset by injuries at receiver and unable to establish a consistent run game most of the season.
Barnes needs just five catches to set a new NCAA single-season record for receptions. He already has 138 and could bypass the record of 142 set by Houston’s Manny Hazard in 1989 on the Falcons’ first possession.
First-year coach Dave Clawson remained true to his plans after the Falcons started 1-4 following a 44-37 loss to Mid-American Conference East Division champion Ohio. That came on the heels of a 27-20 defeat at Missouri and a 17-10 loss against Marshall.
Then Bowling Green started figuring out how to win those games. Sheehan scampered for a 9-yard TD run with nine seconds left to beat Kent State 36-35. Barnes caught an 18-yard TD pass with 39 seconds left to stun Buffalo 30-29. And the Falcons scored the final 14 points to pull away from Toledo for a 38-24 win that sealed their bowl ticket.
“The plays we didn’t make in the fourth quarter against Missouri, against Ohio, I don’t know if we learned from those games, but we started executing in the fourth quarter,” Clawson said. “Our defense made stops, created turnovers. Offensively we played good football in the fourth quarter the second half of the year and made plays when we had to and we got some really big wins.