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The Front Row with MARK NELKE December 5, 2010

| December 5, 2010 8:00 PM

Last week's oh-so-close loss at Fresno State was almost a cruel teaser for the University of Idaho football team.

A victory in that game, and the Vandals would have been celebrating being bowl-eligible for the second straight year on Saturday, after their season-ending 26-23 overtime victory over San Jose State in the Kibbie Dome.

But it shouldn't have come down to that game.

No, a potential return to a second straight bowl game for the Vandals was in peril from the moment Ben DeLine of Colorado State kicked a 35-yard field goal as time expired to beat the Vandals 36-34 on Sept. 25.

The Rams had lost 12 straight games coming into that contest in Fort Collins, Colo., one of those losses coming at Idaho last year. CSU went on to finish 3-9 this season.

OTHER THAN a 48-35 loss at Louisiana Tech in their conference opener, the Vandals pretty much won every game they were "supposed" to win, and lost every game they were "supposed" to lose.

Coaches will never admit that, of course. But the reality was that Idaho was always going to be on the fence as far as needing seven wins in 13 games to be bowl eligible. There was little room for error.

Idaho beat North Dakota, UNLV, Western Michigan, Utah State, New Mexico State and San Jose State, and lost to Nebraska, Colorado State, Louisiana Tech, Hawaii, Nevada, Boise State and Fresno State.

The Vandals have never beaten Nevada, Boise State and Fresno State since joining the WAC in 2005, so the near-upset of Fresno was a near-breakthrough. Idaho is 1-5 vs. Hawaii and 2-4 vs. Louisiana Tech. A win at Louisiana Tech, a game in which Idaho jumped out to a 14-10 lead in the second quarter, would have given the Vandals a little wiggle room, as it turned out.

WAS THIS year a step back? Naw, because last year everything went right and Idaho won most of the close games - of the five regular-season games decided by four points or less, the Vandals won four of them. This year, a couple got away. That was the difference.

But the key next year is maintain the momemtum from the last two years. They'll lose 15 seniors, but many starters will return. Idaho went 14-12 in 2009 and '10. Now that doesn't sound like much if by, say, Boise State standards, but consider Idaho went 3-21 in Robb Akey's first two seasons as Vandals coach. And last year's trip to the Humanitarian Bowl was Idaho's first trip to a bowl game since 1998.

"There was a lot of 'woe is me' here a few years ago," Akey said earlier this week. "I see people excited about things, and I do believe it's genuine. They do have strong expectations of this football program again, and we've got the responsibility to back that up with strong results."

The road gets a little easier next season, when Boise State leaves for what's left of the Mountain West Conference. In 2012 Nevada and Fresno State join the Broncos in the MWC. And if Hawaii leaves as well, Idaho automatically becomes one of the favorites in the WAC.

That is, unless the WAC changes even more by 2012.

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via e-mail at mnelke@cdapress.com.

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