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Big game with the Big Sky: Washington State hoping to bounce back in FBS/FCS crossover

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Washington State is aiming to regain its confidence and reinvigorate its fan base a week after opening its season with a frustrating defeat.

The visitors from Portland State seek to recapture the moment from six years ago, when they stunned WSU in Pullman.

The Cougars (0-1) of the Pac-12 host the Vikings (0-1) of the Big Sky at 3 p.m. Saturday at Gesa Field in an FBS/FCS crossover.

“It hurts. Everybody hurt,” WSU coach Nick Rolovich said earlier this week in reference to the Cougs’ 26-23 loss to Utah State. “I was in disbelief at (the fans’) presence and very grateful, but they were hurt, and everyone within the program was hurting.

“We’ve got to get it out of our system and move on.”

For WSU, there is a sense of urgency to turn the page and bounce back in Week 2. It’s an important game – that can’t be overstated.

Starting its season with two consecutive losses to nonconference underdogs would be a major blow to the program’s image, which has already been taking hits off the field over the past month.

A comfortable win, as predicted by oddsmakers, and the Cougars can lighten the mood a touch and breathe a little easier.

The Vikings, on the other hand, won’t be playing under pressure. FCS teams are rarely expected to compete with opponents from the higher tier of Division I play. A loss would not factor into their postseason resume, but a win would. They’ll get a payout from WSU for the trip, too.

“Games like this, the quote ‘money games,’ ” Portland State coach Bruce Barnum said, “if we can be close, however the hell it happens, if we can be close in the fourth quarter, we play sandlot and they get a little nervous. That’s how I kind of approach these games.”

In 2015, Barnum – coaching his first game at Portland State – guided the Vikings to a historic win in Pullman, the program’s only victory against a power conference opponent all time.

“That one being the first, probably one of the coolest things,” Barnum said on a PSU athletics webcast.

“But anyway, water under the bridge. We’re going back over there as underdogs again. … We’re gonna make sure we’re ready to go. We’ll make a run. If we’re close in the fourth quarter, who knows what happens?”

The Vikings have not had a winning season since going 9-3 in 2015, but “we’re right on the cusp,” standout quarterback Davis Alexander said. Portland State was a “couple of tough plays, a couple of breaks” away from pocketing seven wins in 2019 and potentially qualifying for the FCS playoffs, he added.

Portland State went without a 2020 season because of the coronavirus pandemic and instead conducted 25 practices and played an exhibition at Montana in the spring. The Vikings opened this campaign with a 49-35 loss at Hawaii – they trailed by 28 in the first quarter but later erupted on offense behind Alexander’s 400 passing yards.

“I was proud of how they reacted to being off of football for two years,” Barnum said.

WSU was inconsistent in most facets last weekend.

Its offense was tepid early and its defense crumbled late after holding Utah State in check for much of the night. The Cougs conceded 15 points in the final 6 minutes, including the winning score with 11 seconds remaining. Their offense floundered in the red zone and on third downs.

“We gotta know we’re better than that,” sophomore receiver Donovan Ollie said. “We’re a way better team than that. We all know that, from the coaching staff, players, trainers, everybody knows we’re a better team than that.”

Rolovich seems to have settled on Jayden de Laura as his quarterback. The sophomore sparked WSU in relief of injured starter Jarrett Guarantano.

“I plan on going with Jayden. I think Jayden deserves a ton of credit,” Rolovich said, praising the maturity of de Laura, who started last year.

The Cougars are looking for steadier play from an offensive line that was widely considered the team’s most stable position group in the preseason. That unit surrendered too much pressure, and the running game was mostly abandoned after halftime.

“I think up front we could have played a lot better,” Rolovich said. “It all starts there and that affects everything as we go. They’ve been challenged by us. They’ll have a challenge coming schematically with Portland State.”

Vikings defensive coordinator Payam Saadat, a Cougars linebacker in the 1990s, runs a unique “flex” defense that hides pressure and trots out multiple looks, most of them designed to confuse opposing O-lines.

“Up front defensively, they’re built on causing disruption and confusion,” Rolovich said.

The Vikings gave up 268 yards on the ground against Hawaii. Their shortfalls on that end might entice WSU to bank more on Max Borghi, who touched the ball just 12 times against Utah State.

Borghi burst down the sideline on a 64-yard touchdown run in the third quarter for the Cougars’ top highlight of the night.

But Barnum would guess WSU leans on the pass.

“I’m sure they’d like to throw the football every snap. They know how to do it,” he said. “They have the talent to do it and they have the offensive line to protect anybody.”

The Cougars are keying in on Davis and his receiving corps. Portland State, like Utah State, fields an up-tempo style.

“The quarterback, he’s got some magician to him,” Rolovich said. “Some of the things he does off script, you can only respect it.”

It feels imperative that the Cougars rally quickly from their Week 1 letdown and restore some optimism.

They could probably take a cue from their 2015 team, which responded to its season-opening upset loss to Portland State by rattling off nine wins, including a Sun Bowl victory.

WSU isn’t overlooking the Vikings. The Cougs need a bounce-back.

“There was one game in my career where I said, ‘We probably just have to show up to win,’ ” Rolovich said. “I’ve never had another one. This is a challenging team. This isn’t one we’re taking lightly.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS Washington State offensive lineman Abraham Lucas, left, blocks Utah State defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka during the second half of last Saturday’s season-opening loss for the Cougars in Pullman.