Isaiah Saunders ran 23 times for 142 yards and three touchdowns Saturday, and Idaho guaranteed itself its third bowl berth with a 38-31 win over South Alabama.
Idaho (7-4, 5-2 Sun Belt) has its most victories since 2009 (8-5), when the Vandals won the Humanitarian Bowl for the second time. They have seven wins for the fourth time since joining the FBS in 1996, and they’re still within reach of matching their FBS high set in 1998 (9-3) — when they won the Big West and the H-Bowl.
“We’ve all been through some tough times together,” said coach Paul Petrino, who had six wins in his first three years. “The more tough times that you’ve went through make you tougher. Iron sharpens iron. We’re a pretty darn tough team right now.”
Idaho was 2-3 after starting Sun Belt play Oct. 1 with a 34-13 home loss to Troy. But the Vandals have gone 5-1 since, with the lone loss coming to Sun Belt leader Appalachian State, and they’re 4-1 on the road since September losses at No. 5 Washington and No. 23 Washington State.
“There’s so much confidence in the locker room, in this building, at this point,” junior quarterback Matt Linehan said. “It’s exciting to see that no matter what is going on, we’re confident we can win ballgames.”
Saunders’ 1-yard score in the middle of the third quarter gave Idaho the lead for good at 31-28, and his 7-yard TD run with 14:27 left made it 38-28. South Alabama (5-6, 1-6) cut the deficit to seven on Gavin Patterson’s field goal with 9:43 left. The Jaguars punted with 5:55 left and threw a last-second pass incomplete on their final series.
“I do believe our kids believe that we will wear people out in the fourth quarter,” Petrino said. “Those were just two great stops in the fourth quarter.”
Matt Linehan passed for 231 yards, and Callen Hightower had five catches for 111 yards and a score. Dallas Davis threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns for South Alabama. Mseiah Francis had seven catches for 146 yards and two TDs.
Idaho will host Georgia State (3-8, 2-5) in the regular-season finale at 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3 (ESPN3). Then, the Vandals could end up in one of four Sun Belt-affiliated destinations — Orlando, Fla. (Cure Bowl vs. American, Dec. 17); Montgomery, Ala. (Camellia Bowl vs. MAC, Dec. 17); Mobile, Ala. (Dollar General Bowl vs. MAC, Dec. 23) or Tucson, Ariz. (Arizona Bowl vs. Mountain West, Dec. 30). After the New Orleans Bowl takes the conference champion, the Sun Belt’s selection order is based on geography and opponent matchups.