It was an occasion nearly three decades in the making.
After throttling regional rival Idaho State in a commanding 38-7 road victory in the Battle of the Domes, the Vandals had to wait until Sunday morning to learn whether their regular season resume was worthy of playoff consideration.
With bated breath, coaches and players gathered in the Litehouse Center at the Kibbie Dome to watch the FCS Selection Show on ESPNU as the hosts named each of the twenty-four postseason berths on the program. It was during the second half of the show that the news officially broke—the Vandals (7-4 overall, 6-2 Big Sky) nabbed their first FCS playoff position since 1995.
“This was the biggest thrill because I wasn’t sure we were in,” Idaho coach Jason Eck said after the announcement. “I thought we were going to be against Weber [State]. When I saw we didn’t make it in then, I got a little nervous.”
The Vandals will face a scrappy Southeastern Louisiana squad this coming Saturday at 4 p.m. PST at Strawberry Stadium in Hammond, Louisiana. This marks the third postseason appearance for the Lions (8-3 overall) in the past four years.
The representatives from Idaho were buoyed when news of Montana’s playoff berth was announced midway through the selection program.
“When Montana made it, I felt a little better,” Eck admitted in the the context of his squad’s head-to-head victory over the Griz earlier in the year.
The postseason matchup poses an interesting conundrum for the Vandals given that the Lions utilize a two-quarterback system consisting of redshirt freshman Eli Sawyer and senior Cephus Johnson III. Although the latter is more involved in the ground game, the Southeastern Louisiana approach is not quite as formidable as the Sacramento State rushing attack that Idaho faced earlier in the season.
Even though Vandal quarterback Gevani McCoy missed Saturday’s matchup with an injury, wideout Hayden Hatten capitalized on a lackluster Bengal secondary to nab his fifteenth touchdown reception of the year—breaking the prior record established by Jerry Hendren more than five decades ago in 1968.
The connection between McCoy and Hatten will likely play a pivotal role for the Vandals in the upcoming postseason matchup. The Idaho gunslinger led the Big Sky Conference with 25 passing touchdowns and was fifth among his counterparts with 2,376 yards through the air. In contrast, Sawyer is barely over 1,600 yards passing this season.
The Vandals will likely turn to Notre Dame transfer Paul Moala for leadership on the defensive side of the ball, as the redshirt junior boasts 55 tackles and four interceptions this year. Fa’Avae Fa’Avae also leads the squad with 45 solo tackles and two forced fumbles.
“It’s been such a fun journey since Eck and his staff has come in.” Fa’Avae said. “We just follow the leadership and the game plan and here we are today.”
PLAYOFF CONTROVERSY: Somehow Montana (7-4 overall, 4-4 Big Sky) not only earned a postseason berth despite a mediocre .500 record in in its own conference and four FCS losses—the squad also nabbed a home game in the first round of the playoffs. It could be argued that the program’s best win of the year was against a lowly 4-7 Portland State team. Even the NCAA’s own Stan Becton predicted that the program would miss out on the playoffs after an absolutely embarrassing 55-21 loss to rival Montana State on a national stage following College GameDay.
No. 1 South Dakota State
No. 2 Sacramento State
No. 3 North Dakota State
No. 4 Montana State
No. 5 Willliam & Mary
No. 6 Samford
No. 7 UIW
No. 8 Holy Cross
Eastern Kentucky (Automatic Qualifier)
Gardner-Webb (Automatic Qualifier)
Saint Francis (Automatic Qualifier)
Southeastern Missouri State (Automatic Qualifier)
Holy Cross (Automatic Qualifier)
Davidson (Automatic Qualifier)
Southeastern Louisiana (Automatic Qualifier)
New Hampshire (At-Large)
Weber State (At-Large)
FIRST FOUR OUT