As Idaho football players sat watching bowl games on television during their winter break last December, their phones buzzed to announce incoming text messages. Here's a sample of what they saw.
Do u see urself playing in this game next year?
This is the last Christmas at home.
The texts came from coach Robb Akey, who wanted his players to understand that they didn't have to stop dreaming about bowls because they'd just wrapped a 2-10 season. "We got the texts, and it went from feeling sorry for ourselves to being more determined," linebacker JoJo Dickson said. "We were like, 'Wow, he would really do that to us right now.'"
He really would. When the Vandals returned to campus for the spring semester, Akey didn't hesitate to use the B-word. Idaho had gone 3-21 in Akey's first two seasons, but he spent the spring convincing his players they could qualify for a bowl game. "The national publications were picking us to finish maybe last in the country," Akey said. "They needed to know somebody believed in them. And if we believe in each other, it doesn't matter what the outside world has to say."
Seven weeks into the season, the Vandals appear ready to make Akey's prediction come true. Last weekend, Idaho rolled to a 35-23 win against Hawaii to run its record to 6-1 and attain bowl eligibility for the first time since 1999. Of course, the Vandals didn't go to a bowl game in 1999, because most bowls aren't fond of taking WAC teams that don't sell out their 17,000-seat domed stadiums. So if Idaho players want to travel this holiday season, they'll have to keep winning and make an even more convincing case. The Vandals can bolster their résumé again Saturday when they face Nevada in Reno.
No matter what happens from here, Akey already has performed a minor miracle in Moscow, earning the trust of players burned by the quick departures of Nick Holt and Dennis Erickson. When Akey left his defensive coordinator job at nearby Washington State to take over the Vandals, he called his new players to introduce himself. Some came straight out and asked him why he would be any different from the rest. "The biggest thing we had to do was we had to build trust," Akey said. "Our staff was the fourth one in a five-year period. ... They'd seen the hard end of college football just because of the transistion. Nobody was a bad person. They just got stuck in the middle."
While Akey worked to earn his new players' trust in early 2007, one of the key cogs in Idaho's turnaround sat 11 miles away on an assembly line at Schweitzer Engineering Labs in Pullman, Wash. DeMaundray Woolridge was a sleeper tailback from Keller, Texas, who probably would have been Washington State's starting tailback if he hadn't washed out of school after his sophomore season in 2006 because of poor grades. Instead, he spent every day assembling chip boards, praying for lunch breaks to shatter the monotony of his existence. "It's just so repetitive," Woolridge said. "Every day was the same thing. There was no excitement. After a while, it starts to get to you."
So Woolridge decided he would go back to college and do it right this time. He accepted a scholarship to Langston, an NAIA school in Oklahoma, but some of his Washington State credits didn't transfer. Woolridge said he made the dean's list at Langston, but he lost his football scholarship because his lost credits kept him from meeting continuing eligibility requirements.
Undeterred, Woolridge sought another university. While talking to a coach, he learned Akey had moved to Idaho. He contacted the former Wazzou assistant. Though Woolridge would have to sit out the 2008 season, Akey thought Woolridge could help the Vandals. The 5-foot-9 back arrived in Moscow weighing 241 pounds. Last season, he used that bowling-ball physique to smash Vandals' defenders as a scout-teamer. "That was brutal," Dickson said. "We couldn't go for his legs because we were practicing. We had to hit him up top, and his core strength is unbelievable. His legs keep pumping. You've got to really go low to his ankles and hope you tie his shoelaces together."
Dickson and his fellow defenders were thrilled this season when Woolridge became eligible to play. Now, opponents had to throw themselves in front of the bulldozer. And though Woolridge has slimmed to 229 pounds, he still accrues plenty of momentum before he hits the hole. "You need more than one person to tackle him," Dickson said. "More than two people, actually. You need a lot of people coming from all different angles and all different parts of his body."
Hawaii didn't have enough defenders. Against the Warriors, Woolridge ran for 81 yards and four touchdowns. Backfield mate Princeton McCarty ran for 89 yards. Quarterback Nathan Enderle completed 14-of-17 passes for 226 yards and a touchdown. For the season, Woolridge and McCarty have combined for 950 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, while Enderle has thrown for 1,735 yards and nine touchdowns.
Even when the Vandals have faced adversity, they have found a way to win. On Oct. 10 against San Jose State, Idaho trailed, 25-22, in the fourth quarter when Akey yanked an unusually turnover-prone Enderle for backup Brian Reader. "We needed a spark," Akey said. Reader completed his only pass and let McCarty and Woolridge do the rest as the Vandals marched for a game-winning Woolridge touchdown with 1:10 remaining.
Idaho players believe opponents are still surprised when the Vandals put up a fight. "This season, we fight back," Dickson said. "A lot of teams haven't seen that from us."
Of course, with success comes controversy. Just as the Vandals began receiving national attention for their wins, they made minor headlines this week when Akey said he would allow safety Shiloh Keo, Idaho's leading tackler, to play in spite of his arrest Tuesday on a misdemeanor battery charge stemming from an incident Saturday after the Hawaii game. "I am aware of the situation and am very disappointed that Shiloh made a poor choice off the field," Akey said in statement. "I have dealt with this situation with Shiloh and he will have to pay a price. I am confident that he will learn from this situation. As well as dealing with the repercussions within our program, he will also have to make things right with the court of law."
If Keo makes a game-saving interception or tackle against Nevada, expect Akey to receive plenty of criticism for allowing his star to play. Still, Akey understands criticism comes with the territory into which he has led his team. But so does positive attention. And, hopefully, so does the bowl game he asked his players to envision in those text messages last December.
"We've usually been the bottom feeders every year," Woolridge said. "With the work we put in over the summer and in camp, we deserve [success] right now. This is our time."