Up next: Montana Grizzlies

After losing to No. 10 Montana State on the road last weekend, Portland State football returns to town Saturday evening to host No. 11 Montana at Hillsboro Stadium.

After losing to No. 10 Montana State on the road last weekend, Portland State football returns to town Saturday evening to host No. 11 Montana at Hillsboro Stadium.

The Vikings have lost the last five meetings with the Grizzlies and PSU looks to snap that streak, as well as the three-game winning streak that Montana brings with them.

Records entering the game

Portland State is 1-1 in conference play and 2-3 overall, while Montana is 3-1 in conference matchups and 4-2 overall. The Grizzlies come into the game ranked 11th in the nation in the FCS Now Poll. 

Last year’s meeting

It was a long day in Missoula for the Viks when these two teams met last year. The final score was 49-17, Montana. Though the Viks rushed and passed their way to an early 14-0 lead in the first quarter, the Grizzlies caught up quickly and their defense grew rigid.

The Viks scored a field goal in the second quarter and then failed to score any more points throughout the remainder of the game. The Montana rushing attack was too much for the Viking defense, and the Grizzlies trampled the Viks for 229 yards. By comparison, the Viks earned just 47 rushing yards. 

The Grizzlies went on to win the Big Sky Conference and play in the 2009 NCAA Division I Football Championship, where they lost to Villanova 23-21. It was the second straight year in which Montana ended its season as the nation’s runner-up. 

Scouting the Grizzlies

Somehow, after winning or sharing the conference title for the last 12 years, the Grizzlies seem more vulnerable this year. It may be that they actually have a conference loss this year, something they did not have last year, or it could also be that they have a new head coach this season. Robin Pflugrad, a former Portland State wide receiver who played for legendary PSU coach Mouse Davis, is brand-spanking-new and in the first tenure ever as head coach. 

However, none of this will make this an easy game for the Viks to win. Montana’s passing game is going well, even after losing starting quarterback Andrew Selle to a career-ending shoulder injury in September. Senior quarterback Justin Roper has stepped up in his place. Roper received the Big Sky’s Offensive Player of the Week honor after his career game against Idaho State last week, where he threw for 319 yards with two touchdowns. Roper has been throwing for an average of 276 yards per game. 

Montana’s passing game is being mildly supplemented by the running game. The Grizzlies have only 723 yards on the ground this season, while Portland State has 941 despite having fewer total carries. In Montana’s one conference loss to Eastern Washington, rushing yardage was the one stat that seems to explain the loss. While other stats left the two teams dead even, the Eagles gained almost 100 more yards on the ground than the Grizzlies, which could easily be the reason for the nine-point loss. 

That said, the Grizzlies are good at putting up points. They may be on their second-string quarterback with a weak running game, but they are averaging 39.6 points per game.  

The defense, as always, is stout. They have allowed only 278.3 yards per game, the least in the conference. 

Scouting the Vikings

Portland State is coming off a rough 44-31 loss to Montana State last week. The game saw the Viks do a lot of growing up, though, and they should be able to put that experience to good use this week. 

As evidenced by Montana’s loss to Eastern Washington, the run defense is going to be key. The Vikings have allowed an average of 5.9 yards per carry, so they will have to get tough to have a chance to win it. Keeping in mind that the Viks gave up 326 rushing yards to Montana State last week, that aspect of the game doesn’t look good for the guys in green.

Portland State’s ball-hawking secondary should have a field day against Roper, who has thrown nine interceptions so far this season. Junior safety Manoa Latu and junior cornerback DeShawn Shead should both have the opportunity to increase their pick totals. Latu already has two interceptions this season, one of which he took back for a 43-yard touchdown.

 The offense has really begun to click for the Viks and that trend should continue this week. Junior quarterback Connor Kavanaugh continues to grow into his role in the shotgun and has the Viks throwing for 175.4 yards per game. Last week, he played an interception-free game and even had a 75-yard touchdown run.

Kavanaugh’s passing game will continue to be supplemented by junior running back Cory McCaffrey’s running game. McCaffrey has been consistent and successful in Portland State’s new and improved rushing attack.  Head coach Nigel Burton has said all season that, in addition to stopping the run, PSU needs to be able to run the football to win, and this week the Viks will be counting on McCaffrey for that.

So far this season the Viks have been grinding out 188 yards rushing per game. After this game it is completely feasible that they will have racked up more than 1,000 yards on the ground. 

The running game will have some opposition, though. The Montana run defense is beyond stingy, and has allowed only 118.8 yards per game. 

How to follow

Kickoff is set for 5:05 p.m. on Saturday at Hillsboro Stadium, the Vikings’ home-away-from-home this season. Portland State Athletics is providing five buses to shuttle students from campus to the game and back. The buses will be staged on College Street at the south end of the Park Blocks, in between the Stott Center and Shattuck Hall, and will depart for the stadium at 3 p.m. and return to campus after the game.

The game will be broadcast live on Comcast Sports Net, channel 37 (737 for HD) in Portland. It will also be streamed live on www.b2tv.com and broadcast on the radio at KXL, AM 750. Visit www.goviks.com for live stats. ?