The Idaho football team let its best opportunity for a statement win slip through its fingers — literally. Two dropped passes in the end zone emphasized Idaho’s red zone futility and foreshadowed a loss to future Sun Belt Conference opponent New Mexico State 26-18 Saturday in Aggie Memorial Stadium in Las Cruces, N.M.
Idaho coach Paul Petrino said the difference between 1-11 and 2-10 would have been big for his team.
“It’s a huge difference going into the offseason,” Petrino said during his Monday press conference before the game. “Working out, believing in everything that we’re doing.”
New Mexico State and Idaho, two Western Athletic Conference exiles, both came into the contest with 1-11 records. Having lost six consecutive games coming in, this was Idaho’s opportunity to go into the offseason feeling good about the rebuilding effort under first-year coach Paul Petrino.
Idaho was competitive early. Freshman kicker Austin Rehkow hit two field goals to put Idaho up 13-7 in the first half. It was all downhill from there. Dropped passes in the end zone from Deon Watson and Najee Lovett kept Idaho from adding to its lead.
“Today was very disappointing,” Petrino said after the loss.
Senior Taylor Davis was able to get the start in his final collegiate game, finishing 21-of-41 passing for 250 yards and a touchdown — numbers that would have been better without the drops. His finest play was hitting fellow senior Michael LaGrone for 56 yards in the second quarter to tie the game at 7-7.
The offensive struggles in the red zone were disappointing for a defense that put up its best effort since holding Temple to 24 points in Idaho’s only win of the season. New Mexico State was held to under 400 offensive yards.
“The defense came out and played their best game of the year,” Petrino said. “The offense didn’t. The offense didn’t play good enough.”
Part of the good defensive play was senior defensive tackle QuayShawne Buckley making an impression in his last game. Buckley finished with 1.5 sacks and eight total tackles.
The loss is Idaho’s third to a future Sun Belt opponent in 2013, also losing to Arkansas State and Texas State. Idaho will be placed in the western division of the Sun Belt with New Mexico State when the conference expands to 12 teams.
For a first year head coach, there is no time to reflect on a one-win season. Petrino on multiple occasions has talked about winning Sun Belt championships and the process his program is in the middle of. The next step of that process is recruiting.
Petrino said coaches will hit the road immediately after the New Mexico State loss to put together the class of 2014.
On the agenda will be signing a junior college offensive lineman, a junior college running back, some high school receivers and defensive secondary players.
“We need help at every position, we’re probably going to take 10 to 11 junior college kids. That’s the starting point, that’s what we need,” Petrino said.
Sean Kramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org