Idaho Vandals

Idaho receiver Onunwor responds to benching with his best football

Alfonso Onunwor
Alfonso Onunwor University of Idaho athletics

Last week’s football game between Idaho and New Mexico State produced surprises.

The Vandals were dominant in a 55-23 victory.

Another surprise was the play of wide receiver Alfonso Onunwor, who finished with a team-high nine receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown.

Those aren’t the numbers many would have expected after seeing the junior riding the pine the previous week.

“At (Louisiana) Monroe, he got benched in the second half,” coach Paul Petrino said. “We didn’t think he was playing quite hard enough in the first half.”

The benching forced Onunwor to do a little self-reflection.

“It made me think about everything I’ve been through,” said Onunwor, who came to Idaho after playing two seasons at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College alongside current Boise State receiver Cedrick Wilson. “It made me reevaluate how I prepare for the game.”

After the benching, Onunwor decided to head into the next week with renewed resolve.

“That just shows a lot about his character,” Petrino said. “Because when that happens to you, you’re going to go one way or the other.”

“Or you’re going to come out and practice … with great effort to get yourself better. That’s what he did, and I think that equals having a great game.”

After his big game, Onunwor leads Idaho with 27 catches. His timing couldn’t have been better, with standout receiver Callen Hightower missing time with an injury.

“It definitely feels good,” Onunwor said. “Being benched is not something that anyone would want. But it’s something I needed, or that coach thought I needed. And it actually helped me.”

Not that anyone doubted Onunwor’s ability on the field. The 6-foot-1, 192-pound Cleveland native was a standout high school player who also played basketball and ran track. Last season, he caught 75 passes at Coffeyville, good for second in the nation.

“He’s very talented,” Petrino said. “He has good hands and runs good routes.”

Utilizing that talent could be key as Idaho (4-3, 2-1 Sun Belt) takes on Appalachian State (4-2, 2-0) at 1:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPN3 and 630 AM). The Mountaineers, who took then-No. 9 (and current No. 18) Tennessee to overtime before losing 20-13, are favored by 21 points.

“They’re a team that, as a coach, you like to watch on tape,” Petrino said. “They play the game the way it’s supposed to be played, and they give great effort. They’re very fundamentally sound.”

Petrino said his team’s confidence has grown after last week’s home rout and victories in its previous two road games.

“I think our belief has been getting better every week,” Petrino said. “We have to. If they don’t believe, then we have no chance at all.”

Onunwor said coaches have prepared the Vandals for a physical contest.

“We know they’re going to come in and work hard, and it’s going to be a grind,” Onunwor said. “So we’re going to have to work hard, too, and whoever grinds harder in this game is going to win.”