Sunday, March 03, 2024

THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: Vandals’ special season continues thanks to special teams

| December 7, 2023 1:30 AM

By all rights, the Idaho Vandals should be getting ready for their postseason football banquet.

Thank goodness for Xe’ree Alexander.

The true freshman linebacker from Kennedy Catholic High in Auburn, Wash., blocked a game-winning field goal by Southern Illinois at the end of regulation in last Saturday’s FCS second-round playoff game at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow.

The blocked kick forced overtime. Idaho came up with an interception to stop the Salukis on the first drive, then won it on their possession when Ricardo Chavez booted a 28-yard field goal.

That sent fourth-seeded Idaho (9-3) into a home quarterfinal game Saturday at 7 p.m. (ESPN+) vs. fifth-seeded Albany (10-3) at the Kibbie Dome.

IT WAS not the first time JJ has impacted the game on special teams.

With Idaho trailing 28-21 at Eastern Washington on Sept. 30, Jackson’s 84-yard kickoff return led to the tying touchdown two plays later, and the Vandals went on to win 44-36.

Jackson’s house call on Saturday was his third punt return TD of his Vandal career, and second in two games. He also returned a kickoff for a touchdown in 2022.

“I think we’ve won the special teams battle in most games,” second-year Idaho coach Jason Eck said earlier this week. “We take a lot of importance on (our special teams).”

He said some starters play on special teams, but also some others play as well — including Zach Johnson, a true freshman from Lake City High.

“I think that’s one of the strengths of our team … if you can win the field position battle … “ Eck said.

STILL THINKING back to that bizarre play in overtime last week, when Anthony Woods appeared to score on a 25-yard run around left end on the Vandals’ first play of OT.

Woods acted like he scored, the fans on the far (Southern Illinois) sideline thought the Idaho sophomore had scored, the Vandal players and coaches rushed the field in jubilation …

But the officials quietly ruled he had stepped out of bounds at the 9 yard-line.

So Idaho was penalized 15 yards for “unsportsmanlike conduct” and the ball was moved back to the 24. You couldn’t blame the Vandals; they thought their teammate had scored, and were reacting accordingly.

It could have been a drive killer, a game killer, a season killer.

But Idaho is pretty good on offense this season — even against a stout defense from SIU.

Woods ran the ball on four straight plays to the Salukis’ 9, quarterback Gevani McCoy gave up 2 yards running the ball to the middle of the field, and Chavez booted the game-winner.

And the Vandals rushed the field for a second time Saturday night.

Without penalty.

THERE'S A bit of local interest in one of this week's other FCS quarterfinal games as well.

When Furman visits No. 2 seed Montana on Friday night, the matchup will include two former Coeur d’Alene Vikings — Kale Edwards at Montana, and Luke McLaughlin at Furman.

McLaughlin is a 6-2, 210-pound redshirt sophomore inside linebacker for the Paladins, located in Greenville, S.C. 

After redshirting in 2021, McLaughlin appeared in a pair of games last year. This season, he’s seen action in four games, recording six tackles, and recovering a fumble against South Carolina.

Edwards is a 6-5, 235-pound starting defensive end for the Griz. He redshirted at Montana in 2019, played 12 games in 2021, 11 more last year. This year, he has 27 tackles, including 2.5 sacks. He’s forced two fumbles, including one late in the Idaho game that allowed the Griz to get out of Moscow with a victory.

Edwards was a senior, McLaughlin a sophomore on the 2018 Coeur d’Alene High football team that reached the state 5A semifinals and finished 9-1.

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 208-664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @CdAPressSports.

    MARK NELKE/Press In a bizarre play in overtime, most thought Anthony Woods of Idaho scored from the 25 yard-line on the Vandals' first play. However, Woods was ruled to have stepped out of bounds at the 9. Vandal players and coaches ran onto the field, thinking Woods had scored, and Idaho was penalized for prematurely rushing the field. The Vandals went on to win the game with a field goal six plays later.