The Vikings’ game this Saturday at PGE Park against the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks
presents PSU with two challenges. First off, while Northern Arizona is 0-3 in the Big Sky and 2-4 overall, they are still a quality team. The Lumberjacks feature a unique defense, a dangerous, underachieving quarterback and are perhaps the fastest team that PSU will face this entire season. Secondly, PSU needs to stay as far away as possible from the letdown that overconfidence often creates.
Yes, the upset last Saturday evening of then ninth-ranked Montana State was huge. Yes, the Vikings are now, finally, on the right track. And yes, with Joe Rubin (who is still leading the nation in rushing) in the backfield and with Sawyer Smith and Shaun Bodiford echoing the ghost of Montana-Rice last weekend, PSU now has an offense that ranks among the best in the conference. That said, last week was last week and the Vikings need to come out hard against the Lumberjacks if they want to emerge victorious and prove that they are serious contenders for the Big Sky conference title.
“The win against Montana State was huge. And we had a good week of practice. But I am trying to make sure that these guys know when to celebrate, when to enjoy it and when to bear down and work,” said Vikings head coach Tim Walsh. “I’m trying to keep everything on an even keel. We need to play as hard this week as we did last week if we want to win. This is a good, underrated team.”
Northern Arizona quarterback Jason Murrietta ranks 84th in I-AA ball in overall passing.
PSU’s Sawyer Smith sits at 83. Murrietta, like Smith, is full of talent and ability. And like Smith, he can also be unpredictable at times. On the year, Murrietta has thrown for 1,126 yards, nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. He mainly relies on wide receivers Alex Watson and Kory Mahr, who together have totaled 468 yards and eight scores.
This has been an off-year for Murrietta. In 2003, as a freshman, he threw for 3,472 yards with 29 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions. He set the Big Sky on fire. Yet this season, as he did in 2004, Murrietta has yet to find his mark. Nevertheless, he is, without question, a force in the pocket, a quarterback who can get hot with a single big play. The Vikings pass defense, which was torn apart by Montana State quarterback Travis Lulay for 384 yards and 4 touchdowns last weekend, will need to hold its own for PSU to win.
On the offensive side of the ball for the Vikings, Northern Arizona’s defense is specialized, yet vulnerable. They run a defensive set up called “flex” that features heavy blitzing and odd man-assignments.
“Only two or three teams use it in the entire country,” Walsh said. “They work off of their speed. They recruit heavily in California and draw off of the west coast’s penchant for quickness. So we’ve spent the entire week, practicing, trying to counter it. And we have to be ready for it because it’s so different that it can often create havoc for opponents.”
Even so, the Lumberjacks’ defense has been their downfall this year. It has given up at least 30 points in each of its four losses. Furthermore, they have allowed 874 rushing yards in those defeats. For Joe Rubin, that should equal a huge game.
Yet Rubin, who single-handedly carried the PSU offense for the first six games of the year, left in the fourth quarter last week due to a slightly separated shoulder. Coupled with a toe injury that has plagued him since the year began and has kept him out of practice the last three weeks, Rubin’s health has come into question as of late.
As a result, he could be spelled throughout the game by Allen Kennett, who was the decisive force in last week’s victory. Still, expect Rubin to explode if he is healthy. Another 300-yard affair from the current hero of PSU football is not out of the question.
With Northern Arizona rested, coming off of a bye week, and last season’s stinging fourth quarter come-from-behind upset of PSU still in the minds of Vikings’ fans, this Saturday evening at PGE Park should be a battle. Expect Rubin to carry PSU if he can maintain the workload that he shouldered early in the year. If Smith and Bodiford can even come close to duplicating what they created against Montana State, the Vikings should be heading into next week’s game in Missoula against Big Sky arch-nemesis Montana at 5-3. That is, if they don’t look too far ahead.
“As big as last week was for us, this week’s game is just as important,” Walsh said. “We can’t afford to have a let down. The offense needs to continue to click and the defense needs to come out, charged and ready to go. We need this win.”