Idaho is 6-1, already with more wins than they've had in their best season this decade, and the Vandals aren't doing it with smoke and mirrors.
MOSCOW, Idaho — Robb Akey strode into an interview room, architect of one of college football’s really good stories of 2009.
“There were a few empty seats out there,” he barked in his air-raid-siren voice. “I don’t know what you’re waiting for, but you’d better get here.”
If you have any connection to the Idaho Vandals, any proximity, you’d better. Saturday, they continued their dream season with a 35-23 victory over Hawaii, moving to 6-1, more victories than they’ve had in their best season this decade.
“It almost feels like high school again, getting wins every week,” said running back DeMaundray Woolridge, smiling. “Everyone’s expecting to win. Everyone’s having so much fun.”
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The Vandals aren’t about smoke and mirrors. This just seems like a very solid football team. The passing game is triggered by a high-level quarterback in Nate Enderle, the run game is keyed by a top-shelf NFL prospect in guard Mike Iupati, and the Vandals led the WAC last week in run defense.
Not long ago, Idaho had all the markings of a broken program — losing with consistency, coaches who couldn’t wait to get out, some dubious characters on the field.
Akey arrived after the 2006 season from Washington State. Following his introductory news conference, he went to his office to call his new players.
Said Akey, “A couple of them had the courage to say, ‘Why are you going to be any different from the last guy to tell us he wasn’t going to leave?’ “
Then there was the celebrated purge of 17 players, 15 on scholarship.
“It wasn’t worth it to keep guys that were stealing and running around dealing drugs,” Akey told me a couple of years ago.
With baby steps, with shared commitment and higher character, it began to come around.
Running Akey’s offense is Steve Axman, who was at Washington under Rick Neuheisel and Keith Gilbertson. Axman says last spring, the Vandals’ running attack began to flourish, and that led to an effective play-action passing game with Enderle.
“We call the protection, but he directs the protection and changes the protection,” said Axman. “Not many kids can do that. He does it, hardly ever making a mistake.
“He’s really made himself into a good quarterback.”
In the last offseason, Akey began to sell an idea to his team: a bowl game. With its sixth win, the team the WAC coaches picked to finish last is newly eligible. Today, it’s Idaho and 12 others.
“We felt we needed to make it that that’s OK,” Akey said. “The whole outside world was saying, ‘You can’t do that stuff yet.’ “
Idaho has eight Puget Sound-area players on its two-deep, several telling a tale of being ignored in their home state.
“I always thought I had the potential to play Division I-A football,” said Aaron Lavarias, a quick, high-energy defensive end from Woodinville who had two sacks against Hawaii. He says he got “zero letters, no communication” from the Pac-10 schools in the state.
“That kind of hurt a little bit,” Lavarias said. “It’s always something in the back of my mind, that I live half an hour from the University of Washington and they never came out to watch me play.”
Shiloh Keo, a safety from Archbishop Murphy, has a similar story. He was recruited to Idaho by Nick Holt, now the UW defensive coordinator, “and right as I got here, bam, he decided to leave.”
But Keo caught a break, deceivingly so, when Dennis Erickson replaced Holt — albeit for 10 months. Erickson was a longtime friend of the late Terry Ennis, Keo’s high-school coach, and “[Ennis] really pushed my name,” Keo said. “If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be here now.”
That wouldn’t be good. These are high times for the Vandals, who risk their league lead at Nevada (3-3, 2-0) Saturday.
“Nothing in life really compares to winning football games,” said Lavarias, beaming. “This is amazing.”
Nearby, Axman, 60, wore the Rose Bowl ring from the Washington team of 2000.
“I tell the kids that’s probably the highlight of my coaching career,” says Axman.
He and the Vandals look to be conspiring for another one.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com