A purple-clad roar echoed off the walls of Simplot Stadium, celebrating an accomplishment not seen in 64 years.
For the first time since restoring its football program in 2014 — and the first time since 1955, overall — the College of Idaho Coyotes are conference champions.
The No. 6 Yotes (9-0) clinched the Frontier Conference crown with a 38-27 home victory over No. 24 Montana Western (6-3), scoring 31 unanswered points to erase an early deficit.
“It’s a lot of things,” C of I coach Mike Moroski said. “It’s all the hard work of the players and the staff who have been here since day one. As we’ve built this program, we’ve always said culture precedes championships, and we have a group of guys who work hard and love to play football. This year, it all just kind of rolled together for us.”
As conference champion, C of I clinches a spot in the 16-team NAIA Football Championship Series, which begins Nov. 23. The Yotes wrap up regular-season play Nov. 16, hosting Montana State Northern. A win would virtually guarantee a first-round playoff home game.
Down 20-10 at halftime Saturday, the Yotes used three third-quarter turnovers to seize command. The first was a punt return fumble, which led to an 11-yard touchdown run by Nick Calzaretta. The second was a tip-drill interception by Jordan Nero, which set up Darius-James Peterson’s highlight-reel 31-yard TD toss to Hunter Juarez. And the third was a haymaker the Bulldogs never fully recovered from, as Josh Elsberry intercepted a Jon Jund pass and raced 26 yards to the end zone to give C of I a 31-20 lead.
“We were in man-to-man defense, locking them up,” said Elsberry, a graduate of Meridian’s Mountain View High. “I cut off the slant route and the ball came right to me — all I was worried about was not getting caught by an offensive lineman.”
With the game script flipped and Montana Western playing from behind, the Yotes unleashed a relentless pass rush that sacked Jund five times. Senior linebacker Forrest Rivers, a four-year starter, led the charge with 10 tackles, including four for loss and two sacks.
“We made good halftime adjustments, but the biggest thing was we decided to make some fire and bring the fight to them,” Rivers said. “You know, when I was a freshman, we had the feeling we could do something special. So, the hard work we’ve put in for four years, to see that pay off, it’s amazing.”
The Yotes’ swarming effort down the stretch stood in contrast to a slow first half. C of I opened the scoring on a 7-yard run by Calzaretta, but Montana Western took control thereafter, sandwiching two Mark Kharchenko field goals around touchdown runs by Sean Miller and JD Ferris to take a 20-7 lead. The Bulldogs intercepted Peterson twice, sacked him twice and ripped off a long punt return to set up their second touchdown. C of I got a much-needed field goal just before halftime, trimming the deficit to 20-10 on Kyle Mitchell’s 41-yard boot.
“Hats off to Western—their defense and execution in the first half really put a scare into us,” said Peterson, another four-year starter. “But our defense picked us up and we executed much better in the second half. It’s awesome, because we’ve had these big plans of being conference champions since I was a freshman, and here we are.”
Calzaretta finished with 82 yards rushing to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark on the season, while Justin Hellyer added 97 yards, including a game-sealing 69-yard touchdown burst in the fourth quarter. Peterson threw for 200 yards, including 100 and a score to Juarez.