PULLMAN – Portland State can’t lose at Martin Stadium on Saturday, but it sure would like a win.
The Vikings will pillage a Pac-12 program someday; they’re too close not to. Washington State just has to make sure that Martin Stadium isn’t the site of PSU’s first successful ransacking.
As an FCS program with fewer scholarships and significantly fewer resources, PSU is rarely expected to contend with a major conference school like WSU.
Washington State can offer 85 football scholarships and PSU can only offer 63. The Vikings have a football budget of about $3.85 million per season, that’s about what the Cougars pay their coaching staff.
Smaller schools like PSU make a Faustian bargain with their better-financed opponents, giving up a return trip and a realistic shot at a win in exchange for a paycheck much larger than they could expect at home.
Sure, a win would bring lots of attention to the program and would likely have some small long-term recruiting benefits, as well as energize the fan base. But the money is what keeps the program solvent, and while a win could help a team make its case for an at-large bid to the FCS playoffs, a loss to a bigger program wouldn’t be hard to overcome.
“In the end our goal is to compete for a Big Sky championship,” PSU coach Nigel Burton said. “We don’t get any rings for beating a Pac-12 opponent. I have to check my contract but I don’t think I get any bonuses.”
But the smaller programs haven’t accepted the narrative in recent years. Eastern Washington, a fellow Big Sky school, upended Oregon State last season in Corvallis and has twice fallen just short of beating Washington in Seattle in recent years.
“I think it would be huge,” Burton said of a win on Saturday. “I don’t think there’s any question there.”
The Eagles have been the Big Sky standard-bearer and are a perennial FCS title contender.
But the Vikings have been right on the cusp of a signature upset, falling at California last season by just a touchdown and taking a halftime lead in Corvallis in this year’s season opener.
“They’re a lot like Eastern Washington, and we all know what that’s like,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said of the Vikings. “They can move the ball and they find good ways to do it, and then defensively they’re very sound.”
Washington State coach Mike Leach says that the talent gap between FBS and FCS schools isn’t what it used to be, particularly among the best players on each teams. He did acknowledge that the larger schools typically have better depth by virtue of being able to offer more scholarships.
“They play really hard and they’re honestly not that far off those teams,” Leach said. “They’ve got good-quality guys and they do a lot of good things. Their first-level guys are very similar.”
And so while the Cougars likely have more talent – and certainly have more highly recruited players – at every position, they will still need to execute to win, and will need to perform well to come away with a comfortable win to placate fans after pair of losses to open the season.
Being more talented isn’t enough to guarantee a victory. All it does is guarantee that victory is expected.
“They don’t beat themselves, you’ve got to execute against them,” Riley said. “Those are scary games.”
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