One brutal half has seemingly altered the Idaho football season, but coach Paul Petrino is set on not letting it happen.
Leading 30-7 just 14 seconds into the third quarter Saturday at New Mexico State, and looking at a third straight win and a decent shot at a bowl game, the Vandals fell apart. They faded and fell 55-48 in overtime, dropping to 3-5 when a .500 record was in their grasp.
“It was tough. Guys did a bunch of great things for most of the game, then just didn’t do enough; it was a tough one,” Petrino said Tuesday.
The feeling was new for Idaho, which has had three straight one-win seasons. Having a chance to blow out a conference opponent is something that “probably played a role,” Petrino said.
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“They better learn from it. … I think defensively, some guys let up a little bit,” he said.
The bright side, if there is one, is that the Vandals were in the situation to begin with.
“I kept saying it over and over on the sideline, gotta put ’em away,” Petrino said. “… At least we’re moving to the process where we’re in the position to do it.”
But there were defensive lapses, and the struggles in the red zone, where the Vandals had been among the best in the nation. The Aggies had six touchdowns in six trips inside the 20, while the Vandals scored only three times in six trips, which included an interception in the end zone and a missed field goal.
New Mexico State won the game with an incredible interception where safety Terrill Hanks secured a deflected pass between his ankles, earning the No. 2 spot on SportsCenter’s Top 10.
“Kind of topped the whole day off,” Petrino said.
Idaho (2-3 Sun Belt) will try to get back into the win column at South Alabama (3-4, 1-2) on Saturday, but with games against Appalachian State (7-1, 4-0) and Auburn ahead, it may be a must-win to keep bowl hopes alive.
Petrino recalls the feeling of the loss for players like running back Elijhaa Penny (192 rushing yards, 58 receiving yards against New Mexico State), saying, “It’s really sad for a guy like Penny to walk off the field without a win.”
He hopes his team can rally and prevent that feeling again.
“One thing these guys have done all year is stuck together and fought for each other,” Petrino said.
Late in the Vandals’ loss, senior linebacker Marc Millan twisted quarterback Andrew Allen’s leg after he was down. That was part of “multiple unsportsmanlike acts” in the game that led to the Sun Belt issuing a one-game suspension for Idaho’s third-leading tackler.
Petrino said the defense is taught to tackle like the Seattle Seahawks, to “tackle and roll,” but video showed the roll was late and concentrated on the prone leg. Allen left the game after the play, with 1:11 remaining, and did not return. Coach Doug Martin hopes he will be back Nov. 21 against Louisiana.
Texas State coach Dennis Franchione, whose team plays New Mexico State on Saturday, saw the play and said, “That’s a sad play that should never happen.”
EPPS TO BE CHARGED, STATUS UNCLEAR
Senior wide receiver Dezmon Epps, who was suspended indefinitely last week after an alleged assault of his girlfriend the weekend of Oct. 23-24, will have fourth-degree assault charges pressed against him, according to a Pullman (Wash.) police spokesman.
Petrino said previously he may reinstate or kick Epps off the team upon the conclusion of the investigation. He said he had no update on Epps’ status Tuesday.
Idaho at South Alabama
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Ladd-Peebles Stadium (33,471; FieldTurf), Mobile, Ala.
Radio: KFXD (630 AM)
Records: Idaho is 3-5, 2-3 Sun Belt; South Alabama is 3-4, 1-2 (lost at Texas State 36-18 in last game)
Series: South Alabama leads 1-0 (def. Idaho Vandals 34-10 on Sept. 27, 2014 in Moscow)
Vegas line: South Alabama by 9.5