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Sat Apr 17 07:29:38 PDT 2021

Idaho vs. Northern Arizona  ----  Walkup Skydome  ----  Flagstaff Arizona  ----  Kickoff 12 Noon PDT
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>From The Lewiston TribuneLewiston, IdahoSaturday, April 17, 2021 
Vandals Find Value In Season Finale
Idaho hoping to build momentum heading into the fall season
By Colton Clark
For its 2019 finale, Idaho’s football team outdueled Northern Arizona 60-53 in overtime — a wowing, defense-optional shootout in Flagstaff, Ariz.
The teams combined for 1,396 yards at the Walkup Skydome. Then-senior Vandal quarterback Mason Petrino piled up seven scores and nearly 600 yards, Jeff Cotton made a program-record 18 receptions and Idaho saved some face with a thrilling, feel-good victory in a contest lacking postseason stakes.
For this season’s finale, the overarching theme is similar.
Broadly speaking, there’s again not much to lose for the Vandals (2-3), who have been out of the Football Championship Subdivision playoff picture for a couple of weeks now.
But it doesn’t mean there’ll be nothing to play for when Idaho and NAU face off today at 1 p.m. Pacific back in the Skydome.
Though the Vandals won't likely replicate last season's historic offensive performance, they can still close their campaign on a positive note.
And coach Paul Petrino can come away knowing that his players set to return this fall will see a degree of improvement with every down of live action they squeeze in.
Reserves and newcomers have been relied on greatly in this bizarre, COVID-19-plagued season. This tilt probably follows the trend.
“It’s valuable anytime you’ve got a bunch of young guys getting some more playing experience,” Petrino said. “It’s valuable because that’s why you go to college, to play football. That’s why you coach, to play games.”
The last time — and only time — Petrino’s Vandals won a Big Sky road game was on their most recent visit to Flagstaff.
The eighth-year boss will be looking to improve his Big Sky road record to 2-9, and register his first .500 or better season since 2016.Idaho has dropped back-to-back decisions away from home, each one-score results against Idaho State and Eastern Washington.
Capping off their delayed, Big Sky-only spring slate with a win might supply the Vandals some momentum heading into a traditional fall season, which begins in just 4½ months.
“It’s very valuable. Another week of getting better in practice, another week of a bunch of young guys that have played quite a bit of football, and a whole ’nother game,” Petrino said. “I think it’s extremely valuable for us for the fall season.”
An Idaho quarterback could make his case for future touches.
Utility player Zach Borisch was called up from the practice squad to guide a hastily assembled option offense last week at EWU, and he dazzled with a versatile-running 205 ground yards in a down-to-the-wire 38-31 loss.
Perhaps the Vandals attempt to catch NAU off-guard, and experiment with Borisch's arm at the element-free venue.
Idaho should have a deeper stable of receivers this time after two weeks of playing short-handed at the spot.
Michael Noil and Kyrin Beachem will join reliable starters Hayden Hatten and Cutrell Haywood after being limited April 10. Elijah Lilly, a transfer from New Mexico who got some reps at receiver, has put his name back into the NCAA transfer portal.
Perhaps the Vandals again load their marbles into the many-headed, misdirection-heavy ground game.
After all, NAU’s rushing defense sits in the basement of the Big Sky at 164.5 yards allowed per game. Plus, the scheme worked to the tune of 295 yards on 59 carries versus Eastern — good for an average of 5 yards per attempt — with Borisch and sturdy back Roshaun Johnson shouldering the load.
“We wanted to stay on the field, get 3.5 yards each play, get first downs, control the ball and, for the most part, we did a really good job of that,” said Petrino, who added that standout center Chad Bagwell’s return from a three-week injury hiatus was key in that.
Or, will Borisch and the option be relegated to the background? Grad transfer Mike Beaudry, a pro-style signal-caller, is expected to be available after sustaining an injury April 3 vs. ISU.
Petrino, after his gambit last week, isn't counting out another dose of deception. He said he’s leaving the door open for the other two quarterbacks — freshman CJ Jordan and sophomore Nikhil Nayar, both of whom have taken snaps this season.
“All the quarterbacks that have played throughout the year definitely could be in there, so (the Lumberjacks) have got a lot of things to work on,” Petrino said. “There’s a couple of different packages we’ve done now. We’ve played with four different guys and every one of them has been a little different, but Zach’s was extremely different.
“(NAU is) not sure what we’re going to run.”
The Lumberjacks (2-2) are coming off a 28-20 two-score comeback win against Southern Utah. They topped SUU earlier this year as well, before being routed by EWU and edged by No. 3 Weber State. They faced coronavirus-prompted pauses of three and two weeks this spring.
Their middling offense (397.8 yards, 24.5 points per game), much like Idaho’s equally so-so offense, strives mostly for balance. Oklahoma State transfer Keondre Wudtee (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) takes the bulk of snaps, but occasionally hands the reins to Jeff Widener.
Wudtee, who replaced All-American Case Cookus, has completed 67 of 114 passes for 830 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Widener is 21-for-33 for 182 yards and two picks. The two have combined for 163 ground yards and four rushing scores.
Four passing targets have double-digit receptions.
“They’ve got good receivers across the board,” said Petrino, whose team ranks last in the Big Sky in pass-defense efficiency.Speedster Draycen Hall and big-bodied George Robinson split the carries. They’ve accumulated 355 yards and three touchdowns on 69 attempts.
“They do a good job mixing it up, personnel and formations,” Petrino said. “They do a really good job throwing screens to their backs. That’s one of the biggest things you’ve gotta stop. They probably throw more screens than anybody we’ve played this year.”
Star Idaho linebacker Christian Elliss expects it to boil down to quick recognition.
“You’re going to have to take one more read step before you burst to the ball,” he said. “It’s not a huge trick or anything. I think we’re gonna be able to fly around and get that done easily.”
Elliss is the first Vandal on this roster to declare his intentions to forgo a free year of eligibility in the fall and shoot for the pros. Today likely will mark his final appearance in an Idaho uniform.
There are undoubtedly others in the same position, so yes, there appears to be something to play for.
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