Idaho football coach Paul Petrino knows how historically daunting Montana’s defensive backfield has been, and he knows this season’s Grizzlies enjoy perhaps the finest of the Big Sky Conference’s receiving corps.
But he’s certain that most games, especially this one, are won in the trenches, where outside observers aren’t always looking.
“Whatever O-line plays the best and whatever D-line plays the best — that’ll probably be the team that wins,” Petrino said Tuesday as he has many times before.
Perfect timing. The Vandals (4-5, 2-3 Big Sky) have been hard to ignore in those respects during this two-game league winning streak they’re on.
In not so many words, Petrino acknowledged the defensive front is playing its best ball of the year.
Only combining its 45-21 win Oct. 19 against Idaho State and its 21-9 defeat of Cal Poly on Saturday, UI has registered 19 tackles for loss. For the most part in those contests, its front seven subdued the Big Sky’s two leading rushers, ISU’s Ty Flanagan and the Mustangs’ Duy Tran-Sampson.
UI’s defensive front has settled into its rotation, and compiled 19 sacks — two shy of its 2018 total. Tackle Rahsaan Crawford continues to be a steadying presence, and his interior compatriot, 350-pound juco transfer Jonah Kim, has developed more quickly than anticipated into a formidable gap-plugger. Tackle Noah Elliss has missed extended periods for unspecified reasons.
“I think we just have a better sense of trust,” linebacker Leo Tamba said.
Tamba and Boise State transfer Kayode Rufai didn’t let much in Cal Poly’s triple option get past them.
“They changed the game,” Christian Elliss said Saturday. “They did a great job wreaking havoc and just destroying people.”
Petrino’s banking on the defense to quell Montana’s much-improved rushing attack (170 yards per game) and furnish a “clock” in the head of whichever quarterback starts — it could be Dalton Sneed, one of the league’s best, or Cam Humphrey, who doesn’t mind slinging it.
Sneed hasn’t played since injuring an ankle in an Oct. 19 loss at Sacramento State. Regardless of his status, the Griz (7-2, 4-1), who put up 474 yards per game, will look for shots. The Bengals did, too, but their signal caller largely was under duress.
“They’re gonna run the ball, then throw play action, and when they throw play action, they throw deep,” Petrino said. “If we let them sit back there and have all day to throw, that’s not gonna be good for us.”
Any football aficionado knows a defense is only at its best when it’s fresh. Keeping it rested has been Petrino’s intent all year, and it’s easier now with electric, 235-pound bully Aundre Carter back after being shelved for almost a month with a leg injury.
Carter, who’s averaging 5.8 yards per attempt, had 179 yards on 23 carries against Cal Poly. The Vandals sat on the ball longer than the Mustangs, who’d won the possession battle 5-of-8 times before.
“That’s the best defense you can have,” Petrino said. “Usually, when you see a team that’s playing really good defense, they’re running the ball well.”
ALSO SATURDAY: Eastern Washington plays at Idaho State (3-6 overall, 2-4 Big Sky) at 2:30 p.m. on Pluto TV. ... No. 6 College of Idaho (8-0) can clinch the outright Frontier Conference title and a spot in the NAIA playoffs with a win at noon Saturday against Montana Western at Simplot Stadium in Caldwell.