Idaho reaches bowl game as it gets ready for farewell FBS season
It's been a rough year for the Idaho football program, but the Vandals are ending it on a high note.
Idaho (8-4) has qualified for a bowl game in what is its second-to-last year playing major college football.
The Vandals were unceremoniously kicked out of the Sun Belt Conference earlier this year, and the administration decided it had had enough of FBS football and chose to become the first program in modern times to voluntarily drop to the FCS ranks.
In two decades as an FBS program, Idaho has qualified for a bowl only three times. The Vandals will face Colorado State on Dec. 22 at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise, Idaho. Their other bowl appearances have been in Boise as well.
Coach Paul Petrino acknowledged it is sweet vindication to reach the postseason.
"It was a great feeling," Petrino said. "That's one reason I'm so proud of our players. They've been kicked out of a conference and told they were going to change divisions. They never worried about that. They worried about playing one game at a time."
Idaho won six of its final seven games to finish with a 6-2 mark in the Sun Belt, a collection of teams in the southeastern U.S. whose closest member is 2,000 miles from the Vandals' campus in tiny Moscow, Idaho.
The Sun Belt found that it didn't need Idaho or New Mexico State any longer in order to host a conference championship game and gave both the boot earlier this year.
Idaho President Chuck Staben decided the two-decade experiment as an FBS program was producing only high expenses, with few wins and few fans to compensate. The Vandals averaged fewer than three wins per season as an FBS program since 1996, with eight 10-loss seasons.
Crowds were sparse in the 16,000-seat Kibbiedome, a giant wooden stadium built in the shape of a Quonset hut.
After next season, the Vandals will return to the FCS Big Sky Conference, a league they dominated in the 1980s and early 1990s.
That will mean lower overall costs, especially with 22 fewer scholarships to provide, and lower travel costs.
Staben said there was no chance the decision will be revisited now.
"In the long term, this well-deserved bowl invitation does not change factors that informed our decision to join the Big Sky after the 2017-2018 season, versus pursuing an unsustainable future as an FBS independent team," Staben said.
"Right now, we're focused on celebrating the accomplishments of our student-athletes," Staben added.
With all the turmoil surrounding them, you might have thought the Vandals would resume their losing ways, and at first they did.
They opened the season with a victory over Montana State then were blown out by No. 4 Washington and Washington State of the Pac-12. They improved after that and finished the season with a four-game winning streak.
"We played two tough Pac-12 teams and got our butts whupped a little bit," said Petrino, the brother of Louisville coach Bobby Petrino. "Our guys just kept fighting. Our kids got better and better. They found a way to win games."
The Vandals are led by junior quarterback Matt Linehan, a son of Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator and former Vandal quarterback Scott Linehan.
Matt Linehan said the Vandals were pleased to be headed to Boise, a city where they have a lot of alumni and are likely to draw a big, friendly crowd.
"It didn't matter what bowl we were going to," Linehan said. "There was just a sigh of relief that we knew we were going."
Linehan has thrown for 2,803 yards with 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this season. Five of his receivers have caught passes for at least 350 yards.
Vandals players expressed satisfaction that the game will be the only televised bowl game on Dec. 22 and will be broadcast nationwide on ESPN.
"This is my first time ever playing in a nationally televised game," said defensive back Jayshawn Jordan. "It's a great way to end my college career."
Linehan and other Vandals players have endured some lean seasons, and appreciate the success now.
"We've gone through enough adversity to fight through it," Linehan said. "We're happy to be here at this point."