EAST LANSING, Mich. — The Idaho Vandals needed no reminder that they were supposed to be mere fodder for Michigan State on Saturday.
The Vandals got one, however, when they picked up the morning paper. The Lansing State Journal published an "Official Fan Blowout Guide" in Saturday's Sports section. The article gave fans "things worth watching in lopsided games."
"It was kind of the same for everybody. They took a look and read the first couple words," freshman safety Shiloh Keo said. "Everybody was ripping them up."
Then the Vandals proceeded to do the same to most preseason projections. Idaho hung tough against Michigan State in front of more than 70,000 at Spartan Stadium before losing 27-17.
The Vandals had the ball with a chance to tie the game with 5 minutes, 40 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, a shock to nearly all in attendance, especially those expecting the Spartans to "make Idaho their own private punching bag" as the Lansing paper put it.
The beginning of Idaho's second Dennis Erickson era could certainly be deemed a success.
That the Vandals, in fact, did lose seems lost in the shuffle — at least until Erickson shot down the happy talk.
"The bottom line is we lost the football game. There's no such thing in my life as a moral victory," he said. "I don't believe in them
and neither does this team."
What the team does believe in is Erickson, and Saturday's performance did nothing but enhance that belief.
Before Saturday's loss, Idaho had lost its last 13 games against Bowl Championship Series conference teams by an average score of 44-14. Just seven months after taking the job, Erickson produced a stirring effort, if not a victory.
"He had us perfectly set up to come in and win this game. He gave us a good game plan. He put us in great situations and allowed us to play," senior quarterback Steve Wichman said. "We held our own and we played right with them."
For a program with just 11 victories in the last five seasons, simply having a chance to win is progress. As a result, the Vandals left Spartan Stadium feeling pretty good about themselves — and rightfully so.
"You start believing in yourself and that's going to be the biggest thing for us," Erickson said. "It will help us, no doubt about it."
After one game, Idaho appears much further along in Erickson's rebuilding plan than anyone could have reasonably expected.
Athletic director Rob Spear was legitimately excited that Michigan State didn't return the opening kickoff for a touchdown. By the end of the game, Spear — and all the Idaho faithful — were disappointed the Vandals didn't pull off the upset.
But Idaho still has a long way to go. Saturday, each possession seemed a struggle. Earning a first down took on the feeling of a quest. The Vandals converted seven third-down attempts and all three of their fourth-down tries. They were aided by a botched punt that resulted in one first down. And, despite the score, Idaho never appeared comfortably in the game.
Nothing came easy.
And the danger that looms after Saturday's gritty performance is a false confidence.
"It's important for our kids not to be satisfied with what happened (Saturday)," Spear said.
It's important for no one associated with the Vandals — fans, included — to be satisfied with what happened Saturday.
Proud, yes. Satisfied, heck no.
It took years for the Vandals to fall to their recent depths. That sort of history isn't erased in one day, especially a loss.
Erickson, back on the Idaho sideline after 24 years away and back on any sideline after a dreary jobless season in 2005, knows that as well as anyone. His challenge is to convince his team that near misses are not the goal. Not even close.
"We played these guys close, I guess, if that's what you want to call it. But it's not good enough — we lost. The answer about our football team will be what happens in the next 11 weeks," Erickson said.
Idaho proved itself capable of competing Saturday. The Vandals assured themselves that they would not wake up to find another "Official Fan Blowout Guide" on their doorstep this season.
What they must demonstrate now is that this was the beginning of something markedly better, consistently better.
No one, save maybe Bronco fans, will be satisfied if this Erickson era is known only for its moral victories.