CALDWELL — For six years, the College of Idaho football team has been looking at mainly the same seven opponents.
Sure there was the occasional nonconference matchup against an NCAA team, but since reinstating the football program in 2014, the meat and bones of the schedule has been against Frontier Conference foes. But with an appearance in the postseason comes a chance to see new opponents.
The No. 5 College of Idaho (10-0) opens the NAIA Playoffs today with a noon game against No. 16 Ottawa (Arizona) at Simplot Stadium. It marks the Yotes’ first-ever appearance in the NAIA Playoffs and just the second time since reinstatement the Yotes have hosted a nonconference foe. The College of Idaho hosted NCAA Division III Pacific in 2015.
The College of Idaho has never played any of the other 15 teams in the tournament field, so any game for the rest of the season will be a first-time matchup.
“We’ve been in this position before, at the beginning of the season we didn’t have an idea what certain teams were going to be running,” College of Idaho quarterback Darius James-Peterson said about playing an unknown opponent. “We had to kind of figure it out as the game went on.”
Much like the Yotes, the Spirit (9-1) are playing in their first NAIA Playoff game. Ottawa is in its second year of competition and just its first season of being eligible to make the 16-team tournament. The Spirit won the Sooner Athletic Conference by going 7-1 in league play and winning a tiebreaker over Langston with its 27-7 win on Oct. 19.
“We’ve never seen them before, so we don’t really know what to expect,” said sophomore defensive end Keagan McCoy. “But we got film study, so you just go off that.”
Ottawa brings in a high-powered offense, with its 45.2 points per game ranking third in the NAIA. Quarterback Austin McCullough enters the game with 2,980 passing yards and hasn’t thrown an interception in 140 attempts. The Spirit have had 21 different players catch at least one pass this season, with Richard Montello leading the way with 726 yards on 35 catches.
“They remind us of Southern Oregon from four or five years ago,” said College of Idaho coach Mike Moroski said, referring to the Frontier Conference team which won the national title in 2014 and returned to the championship game in 2015. “They’re that fast, they’re that good, they attack on defense. They have some really, really good players. So we have our work cut out for us.”
Two of the newer teams in the NAIA have got to their first playoff appearance through different routes. Moroski chose to build the program from the ground up, recruiting four-year players who would help establish the culture he was looking to implement in Caldwell. Spirit coach Mike Nesbitt has relied heavily on transfers coming into the program, with 60 players on their roster being transfers.
“There’s lots of ways to skin a cat,” Moroski said. “We kind of took a different route, but I think if you ask their coach and what they’ve done and ask me, we’re just thrilled to be here. It’s been a steadier, slower process. They probably have 35 to 45 percent of their guys are transfers. So they got a good mix of guys.”