Thursday’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (5 p.m., ESPN) features two junior signal callers with two distinct back stories.
Idaho has Matt Linehan, who has been entrenched as the starter since setting foot in Moscow in 2014 as a somewhat unheralded player. He has been the beacon of consistency, posting nearly identical numbers as a sophomore and a junior. He is solid but unspectacular.
On the other sideline is Colorado State’s Nick Stevens. Stevens started all 13 games for the Rams in 2015 but was benched one game into 2016 for freshman Colin Hill. Hill tore his anterior cruciate ligament against Utah State, forcing Stevens back into action for the past six games. The Rams are 4-2 in those games, and Stevens has been one of college football’s most efficient quarterbacks.
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“(Stevens) deserves to be talked about,” Colorado State head coach Mike Bobo said. “He’s done an outstanding job for this football team.”
Their stories are wildly dissimilar, but Linehan’s and Stevens’ importance to their respective teams is indisputable. Without them, Idaho (8-4) and Colorado State (7-5) would be watching bowl season from home.
“What (Linehan) does on the field, you can’t really match. He’s a great guy, on and off the field,” Idaho tight end Trent Cowan said. “You can’t really put into words what he means to this team.”
Linehan, the son of Dallas Cowboys assistant coach and former Vandals quarterback Scott Linehan, completed 63.4 percent of his passes in 2015 for 2,989 yards. He threw 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and Idaho went 4-8.
His 2016 numbers stayed mostly the same and declined in some areas: a 61.5 completion percentage, 2,803 yards, 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
While Linehan’s efficiency took a five-point jump, it wasn’t the leap some might have expected. But with a better team, his services weren’t as necessary as in the past.
“One of the reasons the numbers didn’t go up is because we had the lead all the time in the fourth quarter as opposed to being way behind,” Idaho head coach Paul Petrino said. “We were running the ball to milk the clock, and we were playing way better on defense this year. So, his numbers were way more efficient and helped us win rather than slinging it around and helping us come from behind.”
When Linehan plays well, Idaho wins. He threw 12 of his 15 TDs during Idaho’s eight wins (1.5 per win, 0.75 per loss), and he completed 65 percent of his passes in eight Sun Belt games — during which Idaho went 6-2.
“I can go back and say, ‘Maybe I didn’t have the same numbers or the the numbers I wanted,’” Linehan said. “But at the end of the day, the only number I wanted was the number of wins. And that’s all that matters.”
As a sophomore, Stevens was named second team All-Mountain West after completing 60.8 percent of his passes for 2,678 yards, 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Stevens had a brutal 2016 season opener, completing 6-of-20 passes for 31 yards and two interceptions against Colorado.
Stevens took a back seat to Colin Hill, who started the next five games and threw eight touchdowns and two interceptions. Hill’s knee injury opened the door for Stevens once again.
“He started off the year as the starter, and we decided to make a change. That’s not easy to hear that,” Bobo said. “Nick not only said the right things with how he was going to approach the next day, the next few weeks. It was the way he acted and carried himself around his teammates. He was a good teammate to Colin Hill. He was a good teammate to his fellow players. ... He kind of had a different perspective, sitting back. When the opportunity came to go into a game, he took advantage.”
In the six games since, Stevens has thrown 14 touchdowns and one interception. His passer efficiency rating of 165.7 would rank seventh in the nation with enough attempts.
Much like Linehan’s performance, Stevens’ efforts on the field are largely reflective of his team’s success. Stevens has completed 74 percent of his passes in wins compared to 56.3 in losses.
“I feel like he handled the situation in the best way possible,” tight end Nolan Peralta said. “It’s just a testament to who he is as a man and what he’s able to do given his circumstances.”
Stevens is clearly playing better since returning from a backup role. He also has improved as a leader due to his time as a spectator. With one game left in a rollercoaster season, Bobo believes Stevens has come full circle.
“It’s really a difference between how he played at the end of last year and the way he’s playing now,” Bobo said. “And I think a big part of that is he developed as a leader of our football team in the time that he wasn’t the starter — how he handled it, how he approached every day, how he could control what he could control.”
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Idaho vs. Colorado State
▪ Time: 5 p.m. Thursday
▪ Where: Albertsons Stadium (36,387, FieldTurf), Boise
▪ TV: ESPN (David Neal, Matt Stinchcomb, Olivia Harlan)
▪ Radio: 630 AM, 96.5 FM, 730 AM
▪ Tickets: Available at the Albertsons Stadium ticket office and at ticketmaster.com
▪ Vegas line: CSU by 15
▪ Coaches: Idaho, Paul Petrino (fourth year; 14-33); CSU, Mike Bobo (second year; 14-11)
▪ 2016 records: Idaho 8-5, CSU 7-5
▪ Bowl records: Idaho 2-0, CSU 6-9
▪ Series: CSU leads 4-3 (won last meeting 36-34 at Fort Collins, 2010)
▪ Kickoff weather: Low 20s and partly cloudy, with light wind and a 5 percent chance of snow
▪ 9 a.m.: Albertsons Stadium ticket office opens
▪ 2-5 p.m.: Tent Village/Fan Fest, Simplot Fry Feed, Albertsons Stadium west parking lot
▪ 2-5 p.m.: Tent Village/Fan Fest, FitOne Family Field Day, Caven Williams Sports Complex
▪ 3:30-4 p.m.: Tent Village/Fan Fest, Battle of the Bands, Albertsons Stadium west parking lot
▪ 3:30 p.m.: Albertsons Stadium gates open
▪ 4 p.m.: Pre-game activities, Albertsons Stadium