This Saturday could be the PSU football team’s biggest game of the year. After cruising to a 2-0 start in Big Sky Conference play, the Vikings are set to square off against the Montana Grizzlies (1-0) at PGE Park.
With the standings at first and second, the Vikings and Grizzlies both ranked nationally. Fourth-ranked Montana has had a rich history in the Big Sky. The Grizzlies have either won or shared the Big Sky crown for 11 of the past 12 years. Favored to win the Big Sky this year, the Vikings will have to show up for a fight – Montana leads the series 8-2 since Portland State joined the Big Sky in 1996. Both wins have come at PGE Park. Head coach Tim Walsh knows Montana will be a tough opponent and knows about their history.
“Tradition; they have tradition. When they walk onto the field they expect to win because of the past. And until someone beats them that’s going to be their attitude,” Walsh said.
The Vikings’ number one scoring defense that has held teams to 15.2 points per game must face the Grizzlies’ number one scoring offense that has scored 34 points per game. If the Viks’ defense can be efficient in third downs then the Montana train could be derailed Saturday. They have a 44.2 percent third-down conversion rate and their rushing offense is averaging 133.3 yards a game.
Sharing the quarterback duties are Josh Swogger and Cole Bergquist. The running game was supposed to have taken a big hit after losing all-American Lex Hilliard in the preseason. With Hilliard out for the year Reggie Bradshaw and Brady Green have been very effective as Montana’s one-two punch. Bradshaw and Green have combined for 227 yards on 48 carries and six touchdowns.
The Grizzlies’ defense is nothing to scoff at, allowing only 287.3 yards per game, leaving quarterbacks with only a 48.8 percent completion rate. They are efficient on all sides of the ball. Last week their special teams alone blocked two punts that led to scoring opportunities and created 21 points, and punt returner Tuff Harris is at the top of the league with an 18.2 return average.
For the Vikings, the return of tailback Mu’Ammar Ali and quarterback Sawyer Smith will be game-time decisions. If Smith sits, third-string quarterback Rob Freeman will be in charge of running the offense. Coach Walsh was happy with how the quarterback stepped up last week but expects to ask more from him this week.
This will be a tough test for the Vikings. There is a history to these two rivals and it could determine the Big Sky title at the end of the season.
“We beat them before when we were ranked two in the nation and still didn’t win the championship,” Walsh said. “It’s a big game but it’s not the end-all. For week five it’s a big game.”