BOZEMAN — Just how dangerous is Portland State? In spite of a winless record, Montana State coach Jeff Choate said the Vikings are a risky opponent capable of challenging anybody in the Big Sky Conference.
“There’s no question,” Choate said this week. “I think anybody in the league would say that.”
A useful analogy: During his tenure as an assistant coach at Boise State, Choate sat in coaches meetings and analyzed film to prepare for Louisiana Tech when both programs were members of the old Western Athletic Conference.
The Bulldogs, Choate said, were always the team that scared Boise State’s coaches the most.
“They always had the best athletes. You’d start looking at them on film and you’re like, ‘Who’s that guy? Who’s that guy?’” Choate said. “You knew you were going to have your hands full when you played them. And I see (Portland State) a lot the same way.
“They’ve played a really competitive schedule and I think that they have a lot of talent. They have a lot of dangerous guys.”
The Vikings (0-4, 0-1 Big Sky) were competitive in contests against FBS opponents BYU and Oregon State early in the year. They dropped their home opener, a nonconference matchup with UC Davis, then lost to Montana last week in a game fraught with big plays and turnovers.
Under third-year coach Bruce Barnum, Portland State has struggled to build on its success from 2015 when it won nine games and made the FCS playoffs. By the same token, the Bobcats (1-3, 1-1) feel like they could just as easily be 3-1 overall and 2-0 in the conference if it weren’t for close defeats at the hands of South Dakota State and Weber State.
Both teams will come into Saturday’s game hungry for victory.
“Judging from their film, they’re relentless. They get after it and they never give up,” MSU quarterback Chris Murray said of the Vikings. “They’ve been in close games as well, so I’m pretty sure they want to get over that hump as much as we do.”
Following are five storylines to consider:
LaSane’s impact: The Bobcats will welcome Nick LaSane back to the lineup this week after he served a four-game suspension stemming from separate offseason arrests. LaSane, a senior running back, is expected to take turns in a rotation that includes Edward Vander, Logan Jones and Troy Andersen.
LaSane, who has a 5.7 yards-per-carry average in his career, spent the last four weeks playing on the scout team. His impact remains to be seen, but his return is a breath of fresh air for MSU.
“To me, he’s probably the most physical (runner) in our group, and we need that right now to help get our o-line a little bit more push up front going downhill this week,” Murray said.
Cashing in: MSU’s offense hopes to have the same fast start it did in a 49-21 win two weeks ago at North Dakota — not the sluggishness it showed in a 25-17 loss to Weber State last week.
Right now, the Bobcats rank 11th out of 13 teams in the Big Sky in red-zone scoring. Last week, Murray and the offense pushed their first three drives inside Weber State’s 30-yard line but came away with just three total points.
“Against good football teams you get exposed and that’s what happened,” offensive coordinator Brian Armstrong said. “We left points on the field and that’s disappointing.”
One player to watch on defense for Portland State is cornerback Chris Seisay, an Oregon transfer who had two interceptions last week versus Montana.
QB question: Will it be senior Josh Kraght or freshman Jelani Eason at quarterback for Portland State? All indications are that it will be Kraght, and Barnum said as much this week.
Kraght has more experience running the offense, but the athletic Eason brings certain intangibles. Kraght has also played receiver.
“We’re expecting more of a (Kraght) game, but definitely ready,” defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak said. “The offense doesn’t change much when either one of them are in there.”
Defensive alignment: Safety JoJo Henderson and true freshman cornerback Tyrel Thomas aren’t expected to play for the Bobcats, and middle linebacker Josh Hill remains questionable with a leg injury. Grant Collins, typically a rush end, has manned Hill’s position the past two games.
Khari Garcia is expected to start in Henderson’s free safety spot, while Damien Washington is slated to start for Thomas. True freshman corner Jalen Cole could see his first playing time for the Bobcats this week.
Kick-start: To date, the Bobcats are 1 for 6 on field goals. Gabe Peppenger was 1 for 3 last week versus Weber State, though Choate said, “I don’t think that’s going to be an issue, really.”
Choate was more disappointed in Jered Padmos and the punting game last week, which occasionally left the Wildcats with a short field. MSU needs to improve in the kicking game this week.
“I was frustrated with the punting,” Choate said. “Jered’s been excellent at that. I think he had a bad day. We’ll be fine there. We’ll be fine.”