Perhaps no other team in the nation needed a win as much as Idaho last weekend. And perhaps no Vandal needed to make a big play as much as Callen Hightower.
Idaho’s overtime win at UNLV last Saturday was an emotional boost.
“That’s one of the best wins I’ve had as part of the Vandal brotherhood here,” quarterback Matt Linehan said.
Idaho held UNLV to a field goal in OT. The Vandals, 14-point underdogs, responded with a touchdown drive that was capped by an 11-yard reception by Hightower. Idaho won 33-30.
“For Callen Hightower to make that play — I know all the hard work he’s put in — for him to win us the game, it was awesome to see that,” Linehan said. “I love that man to death.”
Hightower proved at the end of last season that he could be a playmaker. He had more than 100 receiving yards in three of the final five games, and he put up a career-best 161 yards at Auburn.
Because of that strong finish, Hightower was named a Sun Belt preseason all-conference selection. But through three games this season, the senior had eight receptions for 58 yards.
Meanwhile, after winning its opener against Montana State, Idaho lost to Washington and Washington State by a combined score of 115-20. Clearly, Idaho — and Hightower — needed something positive to happen. And it did, on the final play against UNLV.
“There’s not too much of a better way you can win than that. … It was very emotional for our team. It’s a positive going into conference play,’’ said Hightower, who led the Vandals with four catches for 67 yards.
The Vandals (2-2, 0-0) begin their Sun Belt run Saturday against Troy (3 p.m. MT, ESPN3, 630 AM). The Trojans (3-1, 1-0) are 14-point favorites after knocking off New Mexico State 52-6 last week.
“They’ve been winning, and winning inspires everybody to play harder,” Idaho coach Paul Petrino said. “They’re playing really good defensively right now. This last game, you look at it and they had five interceptions.”
Hightower said Idaho will counter with an offense that is playing with a renewed confidence.
“Our offense actually clicked (against UNLV), and that felt great,” he said. “Our offense got rolling again and it felt like how it was supposed to feel.”
That said, Petrino has let his players know that Troy represents a tough test as Idaho begins its penultimate season in the Sun Belt (Idaho will drop down to the Big Sky in 2018).
“To be honest with you, I told our coaching staff and our players going into the year that they would probably be our hardest home game. … Obviously, that kind of looks like the case right now,’’ he said.
Idaho has won its past two games at the Kibbie Dome: It knocked off Texas State 38-31 in its season finale last year, and defeated Montana State 20-17 on Sept. 1.
Petrino said another win in its homecoming game Saturday would be big for the program.
“It’s really important to get that home-game winning streak,” the fourth-year head coach said. “I’ve talked about that since I got here. We’re at two now, and we’ve got to get it to three.”