MOSCOW — Idaho coach Paul Petrino often talks about the process of turning around the Vandals.
The progress of Petrino’s rebuilding process was on display at times Saturday for the announced crowd of 14,071 in the Kibbie Dome to watch Idaho’s home opener. But also evident were the frustrations that come with that process in a 45-35 loss to a Northern Illinois team that played in the Orange Bowl last season and beat Iowa two weeks ago.
The first-year head coach could not help but show the varied emotions that are part of the process as he addressed media after the game.
“We’re improving — we’re a heck of a lot better football team than we were at North Texas, than we were at Wyoming,” Petrino said. “... But you’re good and bad, you’re not going to beat Northern Illinois. They’re too good of a football team. We showed great improvement, but we’ve got a ways to go still to be tough enough and to have enough courage to fight through the whole thing and find a way to win.”
Idaho (0-3) had NIU (2-0) searching for adjustments in the first half, despite having scored just 16 points while giving up 82 in its first two games.
The Vandals opened the game with a 10-play, 75-yard drive that finished with a 1-yard touchdown run by running back James Baker.
Idaho featured both Chad Chalich and Josh McCain at quarterback on the drive and throughout the game. A McCain fumble led to an NIU score that tied the game, but Chalich guided the Vandals on two successive scoring drives that gave Idaho a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter.
McCain chipped in a 37-yard TD run that provided Idaho a 28-21 lead at halftime.
“I thought they played at times really well and at times not good enough, and that’s kinda when you lose,” Petrino said of the quarterbacks. “If we are going to win, they just have to keep improving.”
Idaho struggled to keep up the same pace on both offense and defense after halfime. The Vandals had two fumbles in the second half and gave up nine sacks for the game.
NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch also started to find holes in a Vandal defense. The senior, who was on a number of preseason player-of-the-year watch lists, threw a 3-yard TD pass and ran for a 61-yard score to put the Huskies 35-28 in the third quarter.
“We knew (Lynch) was going to be tough,” Idaho sophomore linebacker Broc Westlake said. “He is not a quarterback that is going to try to juke a lot. He wants to put his head down and run hard.”
Lynch accounted for 311 of NIU’s 508 yards on offense.
Still, the Vandals found themselves with an opportunity for a possible upset.
Baker added another 1-yard TD run to even the score early in the fourth quarter. Idaho’s defense then forced NIU to punt on its next possession, but Baker turned the ball over two plays later.
“I was standing straight up,” said Baker, who also caught a 37-yard TD pass from Chalich. “Coach always tells me to get my pads low. I guess a safety came by and just stripped the ball out. That was all about ball security.”
Mathew Sims followed the turnover with a 51-yard field goal to give the Huskies a 38-35 lead. Lynch then found Luke Eakes for 13-yard TD pass on NIU’s next possession.
Idaho had two more attempts on offense to try to match NIU, but both drives ended on fourth-down plays.
“What’s tough is when you don’t have it (the playbook) all in,” said Petrino, whose team plays Washington State (2-1) next week in Pullman, Wash. “You know the adjustments to make — when they do this, you do this — and we are just not all the way there yet. There was a couple of times that I wanted to call plays, but our guys don’t know them yet.”