Vandals working toward return to FCS, Big Sky

(AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - Two particular trophies sitting inside a display case at the Idaho Vandal Athletic Hall of Fame seem to be shining brighter this year.

The Walter Payton Awards won by quarterbacks John Friesz and Doug Nussmeier in 1989 and '93, respectively, are surely drawing extra interest in the display that overlooks the Kibbie Dome weight room and sits just outside football coach Paul Petrino's office.

Idaho is stepping back to its football past to move forward into what the Vandals hope is a brighter future. After 22 seasons on the FBS level, they are returning to the FCS and the Big Sky, where they played as a founding member from 1963-95, winning eight conference titles and making 11 appearances in the NCAA Division I-AA (now FCS) playoffs. During that heyday, Friesz and Nussmeier captured the Payton as the national player of the year.

"I think the attitude of our team right now is excellent," said Petrino, who's now in his sixth season. "I think all our guys are working their tails off and are excited and are moving forward. We're going to go try to win the Big Sky."

The drop in Division I affiliation was met with disappointment in the Vandals program when the school administration announced the move in April 2016. Yet they often played in Boise State's shadow and posted a mere 86-174 (.331) record on the FBS level. After having their associate membership in the Sun Belt Conference terminated after the 2017 season, which created the difficult prospect of playing as an independent, the decision was looked upon as being fiscally responsible.

It's debated nationally whether others schools will make such a drop, but what the Vandals are more concerned with is restoring their program to a winning level. Most of the other sports at the Moscow, Idaho, school returned to the Big Sky in 2014.

"My job is to control what I can control, be the best coach I can and make sure our guys graduate," Petrino said. "Two years ago, that's when we found out we were being kicked out of the (Sun Belt), that's when we found out we were moving down. We didn't talk about it, we didn't worry about it, we worried about winning games.

"Now that we know exactly where we're going to be, then that's what we worry about. So we're 100 percent moving forward, fired up about it and (will) go try to get it done."

Petrino, the 50-year-old younger brother of Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, grew up in Montana and is well-versed in Big Sky history. He was an assistant at Idaho from 1992-94, with the Vandals winning the conference title in the first season and Nussmeier the Payton in the second.

The Vandals' return to the Big Sky recreates rivalries with such schools as Montana, Montana State, Eastern Washington and Idaho State, and introduces new ones. Geographically, it makes more sense than playing in a Sun Belt that stretches east to Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.

Their success in 2016 - a 9-4 record with a win in their third bowl appearance, 61-50 over Colorado State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl - suggests the Vandals will be competitive immediately in the Big Sky. However, that is their only winning season under Petrino, who's 19-41 overall.

Last year, they finished 4-8, opening the season with a 28-6 win over a Sacramento State squad that went on to finish 6-2 in the Big Sky.

"I think there's always pressure to do well immediately, but I think there's probably more pressure now," said Petrino, one of the higher-paid coaches in the FCS after having a $450,000 base salary before bonuses last year.

"We probably went into a lot of games in the Sun Belt where we were the underdog and we weren't expected to win, and maybe the other team had a little bit better players. In the last two years, we competed toe-to-toe with all of them. And now people expect us to go win every game."

The drop to the FCS meant Idaho had to reduce to the 63-scholarship limit, but it's been easier than some may think. The Vandals were never at the FBS limit of 85 scholarships, topping out at 80 last season. To accommodate the drop, a number of their players are on partial athletic scholarships with additional academic aid.

The strength of the team is at linebacker, where all three starters return as seniors: Tony Lashley, who was named first-team All-Sun Belt last season, Kaden Elliss and Ed Hall. They represent half of the six returning defensive starters.

But as the Vandals head toward spring practice, beginning March 26, they need to replace six starters on offense, including four-year quarterback Matt Linehan. Junior Mason Petrino, the coach's son, and sophomore Colton Richardson both made a late-season start when Linehan was injured, and redshirt freshman Dylan Lemle will join them in the competition for the starting job.

"We just have to get all three of them to be the very best players they can be and let it sort itself out," Petrino said. "See who's the best and go from there."

The Vandals have two FBS opponents on their schedule each of the next five seasons - all on the road. The 2018 regular season is bookended by games against Fresno State (Sept. 1) and Florida (Nov. 17), and their return to Big Sky competition is Sept. 22 at UC Davis.

Updated February 15, 2018

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