Booted in Bozeman

Being on the losing side of a 44-31 football game cannot feel good. It’s an odd score; it’s too close of a score to signal a blowout, but it’s too high of a point deficit to still feel close.

Being on the losing side of a 44-31 football game cannot feel good. It’s an odd score; it’s too close of a score to signal a blowout, but it’s too high of a point deficit to still feel close. But the Portland State football team should not feel distraught as they reflect on Saturday’s game against the Montana State Bobcats. 

What they should feel is pride. Montana State is hot right now. After the win on Saturday, the Bobcats are the only team in the Big Sky Conference with a perfect 3-0 record in league play, and they have sole possession of the top spot in the conference standings. Their offense is firing on all cylinders under an incredibly athletic freshman quarterback. Oh, and there’s that little thing about being ranked 10th in the nation in FCS football. 

Statistically, the game was incredibly close. The Viks should feel proud to have competed with a team that is playing on such a high level, and to have done it on such even footing is even more of a testament to PSU’s ability. 

The Viks held an 18-3 lead in the first quarter. They did it with an even mix of offense, defense and special teams—an all-around team effort. 

Sophomore Zach Brown’s opening-drive field goal from 31 yards kicked off the Vikings’ flurry, and a 55-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Connor Kavanaugh to senior tight end Julius Thomas added to it. Then, Kavanaugh took a quarterback-keeper 75-yards up the middle for a touchdown to complete the trifecta.

Head coach Nigel Burton said the Vikings’ first-quarter showing, and Thomas’ touchdown reception in particular, put the advantage in their hands.

“After that, you have a chance to take away a team’s will to win,” he said.

During all of this early action, the defense stood strong. They contained the potent Bobcat offense and kept them from making it into the end zone, holding them to only 72 yards of total offense in the first quarter. The Viks, in the meantime, racked up 207 such yards. Bobcat kicker Jason Cunningham was the only Bobcat to score in the first frame, doing so with an impressive 52-yard field goal. 

Eventually though, the Bobcats offense woke up and proved too much to handle for a Viking defense in its first year of transition from the 3-4 to the 4-3. The Bobcats ripped the Viks for 304 yards in the second half, most of it on the ground. 

The pass defense was evenly matched for both teams. The Viks threw for 208 yards and the Bobcats threw for 206 yards. Both quarterbacks, Kavanaugh for the Viks and MSU freshman Denarius McGhee, had mistake-free games with no interceptions and were very evenly matched.

Kavanaugh completed 16 of 27 passes with a 7.7-yard per pass average. McGhee finished 15 of 27 and averaged 7.5 yards per toss.  

The two teams were almost even on a lot of points. Portland State averaged 6.5 yards per rush while Montana State had 6.7. Both teams averaged 7 yards per play. The Viks had 227 yards of punting and the Bobcats had 232. Both defenses came up with two sacks. The top defensive player for both team had nine tackles. All the stats had the teams neck-and-neck.

There are only two stats that tell the real story behind the loss. One is the rushing yardage. Portland State’s running game, which has been much improved thus far this year, had 248 yards. The Bobcats running game scorched the Viks though for 326 yards.  

The other stat deals with turnovers. The Viks had two fumbles and lost them both, one of which became a touchdown. The Bobcats played a completely mistake-free game. Sometimes in close matches, what it comes down to can be something as small as a fumble. The Viks were on the losing end of the turnovers in this game. 

There are several things to feel good about coming away from this game if you are a Vikings fan. The Viks may have played their cleanest game in years. They only had seven penalties for a total of 39 yards and only one of those penalties resulted in a first down for the Bobcats. By comparison, the Bobcats had 11 penalties for a whopping 104 yards. 

Last year, the Viks had a habit of getting in the game early, taking a lead and then quitting after the first quarter. This game seemed it would go the same way. After being shut out for much of the first quarter, the Bobcats scored 41 unanswered points to give them a 44-18 lead. Portland State, after being shut out for two quarters, then came back to score 13 points in the fourth, nearly putting the game back within reach. 

“One thing you will see when watching us,” Burton said. “They will always play hard, and they will always play to the end.”

Another thing that can be viewed in a positive light: Kavanaugh. When the announcement came that last year’s starting quarterback, Drew Hubel, would be out for the season with a nagging shoulder injury that required surgery, it became apparent that Kavanaugh would have to step up and take the reins. 

They say a good running back is a quarterback’s best friend, and that has certainly been true for Kavanaugh. With the improved running game, courtesy of junior Cory McCaffrey, Kavanaugh has had the chance to sit in the pocket and pick his passes. He also hasn’t had to spend as much time scrambling to get the first down. He managed this game and his progression seems to suggest he will only continue to improve. 

There isn’t any doubt that the Viks have made progress from last season. There is also no doubt they have some work to do before they’re ready to beat the best team in the conference. 

Portland State returns to action with a home game on Saturday, when they will host Montana (4-2, 3-1 Big Sky) at 5:05 p.m. at Hillsboro Stadium. ?