The Vikings 37-16 loss to the fifth-ranked Montana Grizzlies in Missoula on Saturday dealt PSU’s Big Sky title hopes and playoff chances a serious blow. With the defeat, the Viks fell to 5-4 (3-2 Big Sky) on the season. Moreover, they dropped from first to fifth in conference play. Now, with only two games left in the regular season, the Vikings must win both to sustain any chance of meeting the goals they set before the year began.
PSU fell behind 14-0 early to the Grizzlies in the first quarter and they were never able to mount a serious threat. Beset by 13 penalties for 95 yards and converting on only six for 16 on third-down conversions, the Vikings did themselves in with uncharacteristic, sloppy play.
Unable to get the running game going (Joe Rubin was limited to 101 yards on 20 carries; for him, an off-game) the Viks were forced to rely on their passing game and their defense, both of which ultimately let them down.
Quarterback Sawyer Smith, while 18 of 35 for 199 yards on the game, threw a costly interception that led to a Montana touchdown at the end of the first half. The Vikings defensive special team also gave up a 74-yard touchdown on a punt return by Tuff Harris that was the eventual turning point in the contest.
PSU was only able to put up three points on the board before the fourth quarter, and by that time, they found themselves down 27-3 and out of options.
The Vikings were also unable to get their main wide receiver, Shaun Bodiford, into the contest. Bodiford, who only had three receptions for 19 yards, had in PSU’s previous two games (both of which the Viks won) been able to team up with Smith and exploit opponents’ stacking of the defensive line in the attempt to stop Rubin. However, against Montana, Smith was forced to rely on wide-out Brendan Ferrigno with Bodiford’s inability to find a role in the offense. Ferrigno, who came up with a huge four receptions for 83 yards, was at times PSU’s only consistent offensive threat.
Perhaps most defeating for the Vikings is the fact that the loss to Montana, in the end, equals a serious missed opportunity. With a win, PSU would have come close to cementing its position as the leader of the Big Sky conference. A conference title and a playoff run would have easily been in the Vikings’ grasp. Yet, with the loss, PSU now must pull out wins against two tough conference rivals, Idaho State and Weber State, to muster any momentum in a quest for the I-AA postseason.
How quickly things have changed for the Vikings. A week ago, they had moved up to 20th in the I-AA rankings, sat atop the Big Sky conference at 3-1 and held their fate in their hands. Now though, they are stuck at fifth place in the unforgiving Big Sky.
Furthermore, they are also in danger of finishing with a worse overall record than they did in the 2004 season, when they finished 7-4.
It has been an up-and-down season for PSU and the defeat to Montana proved it. In their 45-0 pummeling of Northern Arizona last week, the Vikings looked like the most dangerous team in their conference. Smith and Bodiford were lightning unbottled, Rubin was still tossing out yards like they were free money and the PSU defense resembled a I-AA version of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens.
But on Saturday, in Missoula, the Vikings were exploited by a Grizzlies team that quickly found and skillfully pounded upon their weaknesses. Montana knew going into the game that stopping Rubin meant stopping PSU. And the Grizzlies 37-16 shellacking of the Vikings gave form to theory. PSU was outmatched and outmanned by Montana and it showed.
All is not lost for the ’05 PSU Vikings though. Winning the next two games should give PSU enough of a push to make it into the I-AA playoffs. And like it has all season for the Vikings, it’s all going to come down to how much they want it and what they are willing to do to get it. The future is still theirs for the taking.