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Sports >  WSU football

First look: Six years after stunning loss to Portland State, Washington State set to host FCS Vikings again

UPDATED: Mon., Sept. 6, 2021

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

What is it? Washington State (0-1) hosts a second consecutive nonconference opponent when Portland State (0-1) of the Big Sky comes to town.

Where is it? Gesa Field in Pullman.

When is it? Kickoff is slated for 3 p.m. PDT on Saturday.

Where can I watch it? Pac-12 Network will broadcast the game.

Who is favored? No odds have been released as of Monday afternoon.

How did they fare last week? The Cougars collapsed down the stretch against Utah State, squandering a 12-point fourth-quarter lead and suffering a 26-23 upset loss to open their season. Portland State came alive in the second half at Hawaii, but a 28-point first-quarter deficit was too much to overcome in a 49-35 defeat.

Why WSU will win: Coach Nick Rolovich and the Cougars are surely feeling the pressure after absorbing a humbling loss to a Utah State team that, per bettors’ predictions, had no business competing with WSU. The Pac-12 Cougs are certain to be heavy favorites again vs. a mid-tier Big Sky team. WSU’s defense broke down on the Aggies’ final two drives, but that unit was otherwise solid, limiting Utah State to just one field goal in the first half and forcing two takeaways. WSU’s run-and-shoot offense thrives on quick, outside passes, which might present a matchup problem for a “flex” Portland State defense that tends to load the box with eight players. The Vikings’ defense, brimming with newcomers, looked lost for long stretches last weekend and wound up surrendering 620 yards against Hawaii – including 315 on the ground. Considering those shortcomings, perhaps WSU will feel more inclined to establish its rushing game early and feed star Max Borghi. Portland State played one exhibition game in the spring and went without a 2020 season. Its roster experienced quite a bit of turnover in the offseason, so it’d be fair to assume the Vikings are still getting their sea legs.

Why Portland State will win: Senior Vikings quarterback Davis Alexander is one of the Big Sky’s most accomplished signal-callers. The three-year starter has accumulated 6,140 yards passing and 42 touchdowns against just 19 interceptions, adding 1,094 yards and 19 scores on the ground. The Cougs will have to account for both Alexander’s mobility and threat as a deep passer. “He’s exciting. He’s in control. He throws with confidence,” Rolovich said. PSU’s receiving corps is among the deepest most talented in the Big Sky. Meanwhile, question marks remain in WSU’s secondary. The Vikings’ “flex” defense could present issues for WSU, too. It’s “uniquely disruptive,” Rolovich said. The flex flips formations from 4-3-4 to 3-3-5 and sometimes 3-4-4 on any given down, so it’s difficult to fully identify its tendencies. The defense disguises pressure well and confuses offenses with a roving linebacker/safety hybrid. It’s comparable to coach Dick Tomey’s “Desert Swarm” at Arizona in the 1990s. PSU defensive coordinator Payam Saadat picked up the scheme at Cal Poly, while coaching alongside former Arizona DC Rich Ellerson. While the Cougars are coming off a disheartening defeat, the Vikings have nothing to lose.

What happened last time? The schools have met three times, most recently in 2015, when the FCS visitors stunned WSU 24-17 in their first game under coach Bruce Barnum, who is now entering his sixth season at the helm of PSU. The Vikings outscored the Cougs 24-7 in the second half at a rainy Gesa Field. WSU possessed the ball for 20 more minutes than PSU in the first half and outgained the Vikings 274-66, but entered the break ahead just 10-0. PSU flipped the momentum in the third quarter, holding the Cougars to only 44 yards and scoring on two long series. WSU fumbled the ball on a punt return early in the fourth and the Vikings took their first lead shortly after. PSU answered a Luke Falk touchdown with a 14-play, 69-yard scoring drive, then recorded an interception to ice the shocking victory – the Vikings’ first-ever win over a Pac-12 program. WSU clubbed the Vikings 59-21 the year before and 48-9 in 2008.

Things to know

1. Saadat played linebacker at WSU from 1990-94. He was a member of the Cougars’ 1992 Copper Bowl and 1994 Alamo Bowl teams. As a senior, he won the team awards for courage, inspiration and strength. Barnum’s sons, Brody and Cooper, are both right-handed pitchers for the Cougars’ baseball team.

2. Portland State opted out of the Big Sky’s spring season. The Vikings got in 25 practices and played an exhibition in April at Montana, losing 48-7. A handful of PSU players graduated during the COVID-19 pandemic and, despite a year or two of eligibility remaining, decided to enter the work force. Those included a couple of rotational receivers and defensive backs. The Vikings were the last Big Sky team to return to the field because of strict coronavirus rules in the Portland area. “We were behind the eight ball coming off the pandemic,” Barnum said during the Big Sky’s media day in Spokane in July. On the other hand, “it could be a benefit that we’re going into it completely healthy,” All-American defensive back Anthony Adams noted. The Vikings are short on experience in a few areas. Eleven of them made their debuts in the spring game vs. Montana, and six more played for the first time at PSU last weekend.

3. The Big Sky Conference has turned heads early this season with a few FCS-over-FBS upsets. Most notably, Montana toppled No. 20 Washington 13-7 on Saturday. Eastern Washington bested UNLV in double-overtime Thursday, and UC Davis squeezed past Tulsa the same day. Montana State fell narrowly to Wyoming 19-16 on Saturday. Portland State is 4-41 all time against FBS teams. Rolovich didn’t address the Big Sky’s recent success when previewing PSU with his team. “My message was strictly based on the ability of this Portland State team,” Rolovich said. He spoke to the Cougars earlier Monday, telling them that if he were a PSU coach, “I’d make (the Vikings) believe there’s a wounded animal up in Pullman and we’ll go finish them off. That’s the reality of it. I’d expect them to have something similar in their thought process. … It’s on us to heal and flush it, bury the dead and move on.”

4. The Vikings had their best season in program history in 2015, when they opened the year knocking off the Cougars. PSU went 9-3 and at one point ranked in the FCS top 10. The Vikings made the playoffs, but lost in the second round. In the past four years, they are 12-33. WSU bounced back after its 2015 opener, compiling a 9-4 record and defeating Miami in the Sun Bowl. The Cougs and Vikings will meet again on Aug. 31, 2024, in Pullman.

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