The Idaho football team toiled away without much success in coach Paul Petrino’s first three seasons.
Hired prior to the 2013 season, he went 1-11, 1-10 and 4-8 prior to this season. But Petrino and the Vandals kept plugging away, and now they are 7-4 overall, 5-2 in the Sun Belt and bowl eligible.
So if anyone can appreciate running back Isaiah Saunders’ recent success, it’s Petrino.
“Isaiah is definitely kind of a little picture of what our whole team is,” Petrino said. “He’s a guy that came in and kept grinding and getting better every day. He never gave up and stuck to the grind, and now it’s paid off.”
In impressive fashion.
Largely a role-playing backup in the first half of the season, Saunders has exploded in the past three games. His best effort came last week in Idaho’s 38-31 win over South Alabama, when he rushed 23 times for 142 yards and three touchdowns.
Saunders is the reigning Sun Belt offensive player of the week as Idaho hosts Georgia State (3-8, 2-5 Sun Belt) at 3 p.m. Saturday (670 AM and ESPN3).
Idaho is favored by six points.
“He’s playing really good football right now,” Petrino said. “He has great vision. He’s physical. He’s breaking tackles, and he knows how to catch the ball out of the backfield, too.”
Junior Aaron Duckworth, a quick, athletic back, received the majority of carries early in the season, but Saunders has emerged with a more pounding, physical style.
“I’m just glad to get the opportunity,” said Saunders, who packs 225 pounds on his 5-foot-10 frame. “I’m just looking for a small crease, and then I just want to through that and hit it hard.”
Petrino said Saunders’ bruising style reminds him of Elijhaa Penny, the 6-foot-2, 247-pound back who ran for 1,163 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Vandals last season. Penny is on the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad.
“(Saunders) runs down hill, breaks tackles and gets efficient 4- and 5-yard gains,” Petrino said. “He does that over and over and over, and you look up at the end of the game and he’s over 100 yards.”
In the past three games, Saunders has averaged 105.7 yards on 20.7 carries. That’s quite a difference from the first seven games, during which Saunders’ best totals were six carries and 34 yards.
What sparked Saunders’ emergence?
“It kind of started happening in the second half of the Appalachian State game (Oct. 22),” Petrino said. “We put him in at the end of that game and he was running hard. The next week was a bye week … and he had two great weeks of practice coming into the next game. He kind of earned himself some more runs, and he took it and ran, and he’s done a great job ever since.”
Saunders, a redshirt sophomore from Elk Grove, Calif., said he knew he needed to improve to get more chances.
“I feel like I’ve definitely gotten better,” he said. “At the beginning of the year, I was a little hesitant going through the hole. So I wanted to change some things going into the second half of the season. I’m just trying to hit the hole and don’t look back.”
When he was younger, Saunders envisioned himself as a wide receiver. His father, Walter, was a receiver for Idaho in the early 1990s, and his brother, Jalen, played receiver at Oklahoma before being selected by the New York Jets in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
“I actually played receiver until my freshman year of high school,” Saunders said. “But I was bigger than the O-linemen, so I figured I should play running back.”