Even the most demoralizing of questions couldn’t erase Paul Petrino’s smile.
While fielding a series of typical postgame inquires from local media, the Idaho football coach was thrown a curveball when asked about his job security. The reporter suggested the Vandals’ emotional, last-minute 38-31 victory over Texas State on Saturday afternoon at the Kibbie Dome may perhaps silence his critics who have called for his firing much of the year.
“I coach as hard as I can every single day and do my best every single day,” Petrino said, a celebratory grin still pasted on his face. “And I think the program’s definitely in the right direction, and I’m going to be the coach here right now as far as I know. So we’re going to move forward, have a great year recruiting and great things are going to happen.”
Petrino’s job is safe for now. Idaho Athletic Director Rob Spear told the Daily News on Sunday the third-year coach has been informed he will be retained next season.
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“Petrino will be our coach,” Spear said. “The program has made significant progress both on and off the field.”
That’s not much of a surprise considering Idaho (4-8, 3-5 Sun Belt) had more victories than in the past three seasons combined, and the most since 2010. It was the type of victory that made the seniors proud of their contributions to the program’s turnaround and made the underclassmen optimistic about the future.
“We got the win, set the stage for next year,” senior offensive lineman Dallas Sandberg said. “Just got the seniors out with a win and start the offseason for the younger guys to continue on our legacy as they continue on a great program.”
Petrino said his team knew all along how much progress they’ve made, save for a blowout loss at home to Appalachian State, and the Vandals played relatively well the final seven games of the season, finishing 3-4. The manner in which Idaho defeated Texas State suggests it may have saved its best for last.
The ability to overcome adversity — Texas State twice tied the game in the second half and threatened to take the lead early in the third quarter — is a sign this program may be leaps and bounds ahead of where it was when Petrino took over three years ago.
At that time, the Vandals wouldn’t have been able to drop running back Tyler Siudzinski for a loss of four on fourth-and-goal from the 1. They wouldn’t have been able to follow that with an 18-play, 95-yard scoring drive, capped by Deon Watson’s 5-yard catch. And they almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to stop Siudzinski on third-and-2 on their 45, forcing a punt to set up a game-winning scoring drive in the final minute.
“To me, that’s a huge steppingstone in our program,” Petrino said. “Defense stepping up, stopping them and then the offense going (18) plays, converting all kinds of third downs and then going down to score. That’s winning together, and that’s really what you’ve got to do to be where we want to be.”
The offense returns all but Elijhaa Penny, Jake Manley (Salmon River High) and Sandberg, while reinserting WRs David Ungerer and Jacob Sannon. The defense loses five starters but brings back the entire secondary and linebacker Leonzard Hazewood, who missed the season with an injury.
Four wins may not be cause for celebration most places, but that’s what Saturday was for Idaho. Spear doled out hugs, then cheerfully clapped and cheered as he trotted off the field. Quarterback Matt Linehan lifted young Ava Petrino in the air like an MVP trophy. Tears of joy still dangled from the eyelids of senior DE Quinton Bradley well into his postgame media session.
“This is a lot of momentum,” senior LB Broc Westlake said. “I’ve only been here three years, but since I’ve been here this is by far the most momentum. The team is moving in the right direction, and I think the ball is going to keep rolling. They’re going to be a tough team to beat next year.”