MOSCOW, Idaho — Central Washington knew Idaho’s superior depth could be a factor in the Wildcats’ season opener Saturday night.
As an FCS team, the Bengals can award 63 full scholarships, compared to 36 for CWU. First-year coach Chris Fisk said that difference showed up on the field, especially in the fourth quarter, when Idaho finally pulled away to hand the Wildcats a hard-fought 41-31 loss.
“I love our team’s attitude, chemistry,” Fisk said in a phone interview shortly after the game. “I think we’ve got a lot to build on there and these guys came to work and they worked extremely hard tonight.”
The new coaching staff pulled out some tricks, including one that resulted in a 39-yard touchdown pass from wide receiver Tony Archie to Jojo Hillel with a little more than seven minutes left. That cut Idaho’s lead to 34-31 and Central’s defense forced a quick three and out for just the second time all game, but the Wildcats’ couldn’t move the ball on their next drive.
Five of quarterback Canon Racanelli’s last six passes fell incomplete to end Central’s upset hopes. But despite those late struggles in the two-minute offense, Fisk said the redshirt freshman proved why he beat out three other quarterbacks this fall to earn the starting job.
“It’s a delicate situation for sure,” Fisk said. “We just try to be supportive and make gut decisions. If we felt like we would have needed to make a change, we would go ahead and do that.”
After two straight incompletions to start the game, Racanelli connected on three in a row to pick up a pair of first downs. Coaches stuck with the former Hockinson standout through three scoreless drives before Tony Archie caught a 60-yard pass from Hillel on a trick play early in the second quarter.
The junior receiver and team captain provided a reliable target all night, posting career-highs with eight catches, 146 yards and two touchdowns. His second score on a 24-yard pass from Racanelli gave the Wildcats a 14-10 lead, which Gavin Todd extended with a 36-yard field goal.
Another veteran, Michael Roots, took some pressure off of Racanelli by rushing for 113 yards on 22 attempts. Fisk said Roots ran well behind four new starters on the offensive line, who managed to open up some holes against Idaho’s bigger defensive front.
His 11-yard run set up Racanelli’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Sam Sanchez to tie the game at 24 midway through the third quarter. That was the tight end’s first catch since a leg injury cut his sophomore season short last October in a 48-18 win over Western Oregon.
Idaho’s offensive line paved the way for 280 rushing yards and three touchdowns, capped off by Aundre Carter’s 27-yard touchdown run to seal the game on third down with 1:35 left. He finished with a game-high 123 yards and Noah Johnson added 113.
Although they struggled to overcome a size difference, Fisk praised the efforts of his defnsive line, especially junior Max Randle. He finished with 13 tackles and a sack, while veteran linebacker Donte Hamilton added 17 tackles.
“I haven’t seen those stats, but that sounds like him,” Fisk said of Hamilton. “There’s a reason he’s that good and he’s one of the best players in the conference.”
Even though Central came up short in the end, Fisk said the Wildcats felt a lot better about their performance than they did after last year’s one-sided 58-13 loss to open the season at Eastern Washington. Fisk expects his players to be ready to get back to work and prepare for next Saturday’s home opener against Division II No. 2 Ferris State, which survived a scare by stopping a late two-point conversion attempt to beat Findlay 24-23.