If you saw Idaho win big in Las Vegas on Saturday evening, you probably saw a resurgent Matt Linehan find his footing at some point in the second half. You probably saw the junior quarterback leg out a touchdown in the fourth quarter, and you probably saw him complete a gutsy game-winning pass to Callen Hightower in overtime.
If you watched from start to finish, you probably saw Idaho’s sophomore linebacker Kaden Elliss reel in two first-half passes from UNLV quarterback Johnny Stanton, matching the number of receptions the Rebels’ third-leading receiver had in the game.
If you were following along with the live stream, it’s likely you saw the Vandals take a punch to the gut with 5 minutes left in the fourth quarter on Lexington Thomas’ game-tying touchdown. And if you’ve been in the loop these last few years, you know that it could’ve been an opening-of-the-floodgates type of moment for this team.
Instead, the Vandals locked arms, absorbed one blow and dealt another. Then another. And then another.
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Helmet sticker for fourth-year coach Paul Petrino, who this time kept the fortress from crumbling and delivered a signature victory for this program, which moves to 2-2 on the season.
This time it wasn’t Petrino boiling over in a postgame meet-up with the media. Usually, he’s the irate one, fuming about the should-haves and could-haves.
Saturday, the smoke came from the opposing interview room.
“I’m pissed. I’m beyond frustrated. I’m embarrassed,” said UNLV coach Tony Sanchez, whose team, quite ironically, is employing the mantra, “Light the Fuse,” this year. “I’m pissed off. I’m sick to my stomach right now. This is about as angry as I’ve been since I’ve been sitting in this chair.”
In contrast, the Vandals were happy as clams, and quite liberal in their disbursement of helmet stickers.
One for Linehan, who put three weeks of mediocrity in the rearview mirror and collected himself for this week-four contest, which always had the feeling of a toss-up even if Vegas oddsmakers did curiously pick the Rebels by 15 points.
Another one for Elliss, the strongside linebacker whose DB instincts led to a pick-6 in the first quarter and a field goal in the second. One for junior running back Aaron Duckworth, who totaled 20 carries, 90 yards and one touchdown. One for linebacker Ed Hall, who came up with a career-high 15 tackles. 11 solo takedowns and four assists – the 15 tackles a career-high for the Alaskan sophomore.
“I think the focus was this week, when something bad happens to us, it’s about to embrace the adversity with all the hard work we’ve done, all the hard work we’ve put in and really believe in us as a team,” Linehan said in a postgame radio interview. “Believe in the offense, believe in the defense, believe in special teams. All three phases.”
Oh yes, about that third phase …
If you were watching, if you were really watching, you’d agree that the worthiest recipient of a helmet sticker, or a whole sheet of them, was not Linehan or Elliss, but kicker/punter Austin Rehkow.
Rehkow? Really? Hey, punters are people, too. Or, in this case, heroes.
Here’s the obvious: In a three-point win, Rehkow contributed nine points, including two field goals — neither of them chip shots — of 40 and 33 yards.
And the not-so-obvious: Idaho trotted No. 5 out for five punts. Four times, the All-American pinned the Rebels inside the 10-yard line. The other trickled to UNLV’s 17.
No need for advanced algebra here. Rather than give UNLV a third of the field, Rehkow consistently gave the Rebels the whole thing.
“I think a big part of it also is our punter,” Elliss said, singling out the “third phase” in his postgame interview. “I think we’ve got the best punter in the country, and he was pinning them within that 5 over and over and over again. It’s hard for a team to drive 95 yards. And when they did have a short field, I’d say that’s when they scored.”
Indeed, the Rebels proved less than efficient while working from the shadow of their own goal line. Of the five offensive drives that began with UNLV fielding a punt, the Rebels crossed the 50-yard line just once.
The Vandals have a weapon with Rehkow, and it’s not such a secret.
Idaho has been affectionately, and appropriately, labeled “Punter U” for the random haul of strong-legged specialists that have come through the Moscow campus. T.J Conley and Bobby Cowan were both collegiate All-Americans before earning shots to play at the next level.
And Rehkow? He’s an extension of the “Punter U” nickname, and he has proven to be more than just a big leg.
The Spokane native punts with power and precision. He consistently makes one of the most unnerving jobs in football look exceptionally easy. His jovial character off the field seems to influence his calming presence on it.
Saturday morning, he provided this bit of comedic relief on his Twitter account, addressing senior tight end Buck Cowan, who also holds field goals for the Vandals: “My annual holder appreciation tweet happens to be on this dude’s birthday this year. Thanks for holding my balls!” Rehkow tweeted.
Hours later, the Rebels were at the butt of the joke.
The only thing they couldn’t control in this game? Where Rehkow’s balls dropped.
Troy at Idaho
- When: 3 p.m. MT Saturday
- Where: Kibbie Dome (16,000, RealGrass Pro), Moscow
- Records: Troy 3-1 (1-0 Sun Belt), Idaho 2-2 (0-0)
- Series: Troy leads 2-1 (Idaho won last meeting 19-16 in Troy, 2015)
- Coaches: Troy, Neal Brown (7-9, second year); Idaho, Paul Petrino (8-31, fourth year)
- Vegas line: Troy by 13