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John Blanchette: Gamblin’ Vandals set their own rules

BOISE – If it wasn’t completely true before, it became true Wednesday: Idaho football turned the corner.

And ran smack into 1998.

You know what this means, don’t you? Every Vandals football coach – caught in the klieg lights on the biggest of stages, weighing the merits of all-or-nothing against the safety of a tie or the conservative call – will have no real choice but to push all his chips into the pot.

Because now it’s tradition.

As the yearly bowlapalooza continues to expand like Tiger Woods’ little black book, the Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl is one of those snarkily cited by college football’s snob elite as being, well, irrelevant and unnecessary and not worthy of their attention.

Folks, not if Idaho shows up.

It’s unlikely any of the 33 other bowl games will have a finish to equal Wednesday’s arrhythmia special, when Idaho coach Robb Akey – a point down with 4 seconds to play – eschewed the circumspect kick to send the game into overtime. Instead, he saw his Vandals flawlessly pull off the two-point conversion for a 43-42 victory over Bowling Green, setting off an end-of-Prohibition-style celebration at Bronco Stadium that saw a jump-the-gun fan dash up to Akey and snap his picture with a cell phone.

Facebook, here he comes.

After the Vandals flattened Jahmal Brown trying desperately to run back the kickoff, the true celebration started – the one UI receiver Max Komar, whose sliding catch of the not-quite-tying touchdown pass redeemed his otherwise lackluster day, likened to “a mosh pit,” with a good portion of the 26,726 attendees boogying on the blue turf.

“Tell ’em the Vandals fans in Honolulu were whooping it up, too,” said Chris Tormey. “What a great call by Robb. Of course, it’s always a great call when it works.”

He should know.

It was Tormey’s bold move to go for two that beat Boise State here in 1998 and sent the Vandals to their first HumBowl, where he kept the dice rolling – twice passing up percentage field goals and coming up with touchdowns. Watching Wednesday’s game with his family in Honolulu, where he’s an assistant at Hawaii, Tormey was not surprised Akey went for the kill.

“They were moving the ball and the (Bowling Green) defense was on its heels,” he said.

Which was precisely Akey’s thinking.

“Why make everybody wait for overtime?” he cracked. “Let’s do it now.”

Except he allowed that he had doubts, even though he had more or less made up his mind before the Vandals scored the necessary touchdown.

“I could hear the ‘dumb-ass’ comment and some of those other things,” he admitted, “and I know the disappointment it would have left on my football team and the fans if we hadn’t made it.”

He called timeout for extra counsel with his staff, and then the Falcons allowed him some more with a timeout of their own. Akey still hadn’t talked himself out of it.

“Until I sent them out on the field and it was too late to send the kicker out there,” he laughed.

The play was a quarterback read with the first option to tight end Peter Bjorvik curling to the middle. When that attracted multiple defenders, Nathan Enderle saw Preston Davis alone in the back of the end zone, tailing left after a dig route.

“It’s a play we’ve had in the playbook all year,” said Komar, who watched it unfold from the sideline, “and every Thursday practice that’s the play we always practice. It paid off in the end.”

The only downside to the two-point drama was that everything before was made to seem insignificant. This included the predictably impeccable 17-catch performance by Freddie Barnes, another 126-yard armored tumbleweed act by De’Maundray Woolridge, what appeared to be a game-turning interception by Jeromy Jones – and even the agonies of the burned cornerbacks on both sides in the 30 or so seconds leading up to the conversion.

Idaho’s come-from-behind theatrics in October and November surely didn’t hurt their resiliency to win for the eighth time, but the Vandals dug into a deeper vein. Even in this tent-revival season, skeptics remained. Their victims sported a collective record of 29-57, and Idaho lost four of its last five – to teams great, good and barely average. Bowling Green is no Boise State, but it’s legit.

And so is Idaho.

“You never stop believing in these Vandals,” defensive end Aaron Lavarius said. “I knew something special was happening today. We were born to win this game.”

Funny, they were saying the same thing in ’98. If the two-point gamble is indeed a tradition, maybe the outcome is a birthright.

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