Saunders

Idaho running back Isaiah Saunders runs through a hole during the Vandals game against Southern Utah on Oct. 20 in Moscow.

MOSCOW — Idaho’s 31-27 upset of North Dakota was anything but similar, in comparison to previous bouts.

Difference No. 1: All three phases played in harmony — the defense and offense accrued stops and gainers in pivotal circumstances, matched the Hawks on paper, and the special teams made coach Paul Petrino’s desired game-altering play. “We fed off each other,” as defensive coordinator Mike Breske put it, and “everybody played for each other,” mentioned Petrino.

Difference No. 2: The Kibbie Dome scoreboard was of no concern; when faced with a 10-point deficit, “we didn’t flinch,” said offensive coordinator Kris Cinkovich. Relating to say, games at Eastern Washington, UC Davis and Idaho State, UI kept an uncommon cool. Even when ESPN’s probability chart had UND at 90 percent odds to win midway through the fourth, “we didn’t pay attention to the scoreboard,” said Cinkovich, and “kept doing our deal.”

Another divergence: Mason Petrino threw 50 balls, completing 27. His previous career high was 41 at UC Davis — although many of those came in garbage time, when the Vandals were trying to make the final tally a little easier on the eyes. This time, though, UI was in it, each of those tosses mattered, and the final one (an 8-yard corner-end-zone fade to Jeff Cotton to clinch it) was easily the most important.

Even though several missed the mark, Petrino gave those longer chucks a shot, an unobserved tactic so far.

“Each week, it’s by what coverages they’re playing,” said Paul Petrino, referencing UND’s man-on-man, press tendencies. “I think we’ve done a better job of making ‘em cover all spots on the field.”

Then there’s Isaiah Saunders, who became the 13th Vandal to ever cross the 2,000-career-yard threshold. He’s only 13 yards short of surpassing former teammate (and now student assistant) Aaron Duckworth on the all-time UI list.

“Really?” Saunders asked when told he’s nipping at Duckworth’s No. 11 spot. “I’m gonna be teasing him the rest of the season, at least.”

This could all be signalling a turn of the corner for a Vandal group that’s thus far been globular — it’s been in a cycle of “what kind of team is this?” UI’s either been passably handling the Portland States, Southern Utahs or D-IIs of the docket, or getting crunched by those on STATS’ FCS top-25 poll.

But against what Petrino calls teams like UND and Montana State, groups that fancy to “take your will,” UI’s unveiled its best performances.

Could this be an identity?

“There’s probably something to say about that, that we usually rise to the occasion,” Petrino said. “I think a lot of it is our young guys — with every game they play, they get better. We’ll have another game similar to that.”

UI held the Hawks to under 400 yards on offense — not the most striking number, no, but it was one of UI’s best marks in conference play, and has proven to be a figure that can get it done in the Big Sky — and this Saturday on Senior Day, at 3:30 p.m. at the Kibbie Dome, it’s got a hit-and-miss Montana team that Petrino said is “usually about toughness,” just like UND.

“Just tough football teams,” said Breske, who served two separate stints at UM in the 2000s. “Like coach P, (UM coach Bobby Hauck) prides himself on toughness. They’re similar in that nature, and I wouldn’t expect anything less.”

Petrino ingrains game-time mottos on Thursdays, but he said last week’s dictum, “be brave” — relating to perseverance and physicality — will bleed through.

Besides that, Cinkovich has seen a difference in the lead-up to UI’s biggest rivalry game, in which it’ll be playing for the heralded, 80-year-old Little Brown Stein prize for the first time in 15 years.

“There’s an edge you get without wearing it out; there’s a balance,” Cinkovich said in reference to preparing for rivalries. “I can tell our guys have that. I think our kids gained some confidence from (the UND game). With this opportunity, there’s juice in these dudes.”

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