Paul Petrino

Coach Paul Petrino and the Idaho football program have returned to the Big Sky Conference. “We’re going to try to do everything we can to win the league," Petrino said.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Idaho’s Kaden Elliss has all the characteristics of a big-time college football linebacker.

He’s long at 6-foot-3, muscular at 240 pounds and he speaks with candid confidence. At first glance, Elliss looks, well, different than a lot of his contemporaries in the Big Sky Conference.

His numbers also tell a story. Elliss made 228 tackles (32 for loss) and forced five fumbles in the past three seasons combined.

It begs a larger question: Will the havoc-wreaking Elliss and his teammates, coupled with their 20-plus-year pedigree as a Football Bowl Subdivision program, make the Vandals a championship contender in the first year back in the Big Sky?

It wouldn't surprise Montana State coach Jeff Choate.

“We played them two years ago in the opener and I thought we went toe to toe with them, but I wouldn’t want to play them every week,” Choate said during an interview Monday at the Big Sky Kickoff.

“I don’t know how that’s changed over the last year and a half or two years, but there’s the potential for them to kind of be the bullies on the block. It remains to be seen.”

Having to drop down to the FCS was hardly an ideal situation for Idaho. It was just two years ago that the Vandals outraced Colorado State 61-50 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

But without a home in the FBS — the WAC folded, the Sun Belt dropped them and the Mountain West said “no thanks” — the Vandals had no other option but to return to the league in which it lived from 1965 to 1995 before making their ill-fated jump up.

Their ego may be a bit bruised, but nobody associated with the program will tell you that. Certainly not coach Paul Petrino.

“We’re not going to look at it that way at all,” said Petrino, a Butte native, an ex-Carroll College quarterback and a member of a prominent family of coaches. “My dad (Bob Petrino Sr.) told me a long time ago, wherever you’re at, make that the big time.

“That’s what it’s all about. You line up and play football. You get to go out there and hit, hustle and try to punish people and get after it, and our guys are excited.”

Running back Isaiah Saunders put it like this: “Everybody seems to make a big deal of us dropping down. For our coaching staff and the guys in our locker room, we’re eager to play wherever.”

But how will that translate to the field on Saturdays?

Conventional wisdom says Idaho will be bigger, faster and stronger than other Big Sky teams based simply on its FBS recruiting efforts. Ergo, winning should come naturally.

It's obvious the Vandals should have the look of an FBS team every time they get off the bus. Petrino doesn't disagree.

“When Kaden Elliss takes the field, yes,” Petrino said. “And there’s a group of those guys, no doubt. But then there’s guys that won’t look a whole lot different than a lot of the guys in the Big Sky.

“But we’ll definitely have a few guys that there’s no question should stand out.”

Idaho was picked Monday in the top five of both the preseason coaches and media polls, and received a combined total of four first-place votes. So some pundits think the transition to a new league and a lower level will be smooth.

Some think the Vandals will in fact go out and win the conference title right off the bat.

“We’re going to try to do everything we can to win the league,” Petrino said.

In their first season back in the Big Sky they will renew some longstanding rivalries. On Oct. 6 they play at Idaho State. The following week they travel to Montana State. And on Nov. 10 the Little Brown Stein will be on the line for the first time since 2003 when they host Montana.

Elliss, for one, seems ready.

“Us going out and playing our hearts out and letting teams know that we’re going to compete for a championship is something everyone will know soon,” he said.

Then we’ll know exactly what the rest of the Big Sky will be up against.

Email Greg Rachac at greg.rachac@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @gregrachac

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