It’s a little early to be talking about teams with their backs against the Big Sky Conference wall.
Yet Saturday has that feel for the Montana and Portland State football programs. The loser of their 1:35 p.m. clash inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium will be staring up from an 0-2 hole in the league standings, still mathematically alive but dangerously close to conceding title hopes.
For the 10th-ranked Griz, homecoming can’t come soon enough. Losing 34-16 at Northern Arizona seven days ago was unsettling on many levels, leaving UM fans to wonder whether the Grizzlies’ 3-0 start was a mirage.
“Man, I can’t wait,” Montana running back Jordan Canada said. “After last week’s performance you know we have to move on. I’m looking forward to getting that out of our heads.”
Last weekend wasn’t any easier for the Vikings (0-1 conference, 3-2 overall). They took a 21-7 lead into the second half against visiting Cal Poly only to collapse in a 38-34 setback.
“I think (last week’s) loss is going to help us in the long run,” Portland State quarterback Kieran McDonagh said. “Guys are going to be hungrier. We just have to finish games.”
Vikings coach Nigel Burton is not one to mince words when it comes to Saturday’s mission. Portland State hasn’t won in Missoula since 1987.
“This is a tough game for tough people,” Burton said. “If you can’t find a way to get up for the next opportunity, someone’s going to jam your helmet down your throat. I think our guys understand that pretty clearly and understand the challenge ahead.”
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Montana’s first league game in front of the home folks marks an opportunity for the defense to redeem itself against a high-powered offense that operates out of the pistol. The Griz still lead the Big Sky in fewest points allowed at 17.8 per game, but the unit surrendered 416 yards and missed a lot of tackles against Northern Arizona and its elusive senior running back, Zach Bauman.
It doesn’t get any easier against the Vikings. They lead the Big Sky in points per game (41.0), rushing yards per game (299.4) and total yards per game (587.0). They boast a senior running back who, at least on paper, is every bit as good as Bauman in Maryland transfer DJ Adams.
Montana coach Mick Delaney will have his defense keyed up to contain Adams. But the Griz have to be careful not to place too much emphasis on stopping the run.
“By doing that sometimes you know maybe you over-coach or over-commit,” Delaney said. “(NAU) did a ton of play-action nakeds on us and boots and waggles – great play-fakes to (Bauman) and then get out on the perimeter and throw.
“They had a nice plan knowing how aggressive our defense is. It is very aggressive and will continue to be. When you have a guy like Bauman and then the safeties start to lean a little bit, then you’re susceptible to the pass.”
Montana’s defense will benefit from the return of junior free safety Matt Hermanson, who served a one-game suspension after being charged with criminal mischief. The Griz can certainly use his experience against the Vikings, who boast a more established quarterback than Northern Arizona sophomore Kyren Poe, who completed 22 of 30 passes last week for 242 yards.
“(McDonagh) runs the ball really well and he’s 6-foot-3 plus, 245 pounds, so we’ll have our hands full,” Delaney said.
“... You have to handle him being prepared to stop the run and still play the pass.”
The game holds special significance for Montana defensive end Tyrone Holmes, who grew up south of Portland in Eagle Point, Ore. Holmes believes he and his pals up front have something to prove after last week.
“(NAU) was able to take us out of the game, the defensive front, and we we weren’t able to be as effective or have the impact we would have liked,” he said. “We didn’t match the intensity they came out with.”
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Montana’s offense will try to regroup after its most anemic performance of the season. Portland State’s defense hasn’t been quite as effective as Northern Arizona’s, but it will challenge the Griz with quick defensive ends and a solid secondary.
“(Last week) we turned the ball over and got the quarterback hit way too many times,” said Delaney, referring to Montana’s three fumbles and five sacks surrendered. “The time of possession ended up being atrocious. That can’t happen either.”
Montana will try to re-establish the run after managing 55 rushing yards against NAU. With Canada and Travon Van the Griz have one of the best running back tandems in the conference. But it’s hard to stick with the run when you’re down 28-3 the way Montana was last week.
“We’re going to have to take advantage of every possession we get,” Delaney said.
QUICK KICKS: Saturday marks Adams’ first game in Missoula. He played for Maryland for two seasons and last year his Vikings did not face the Grizzlies ... Montana is 22-4 in homecoming games in Washington-Grizzly. Last year’s 41-31 loss to Northern Arizona ended a string of 18 straight homecoming wins ... Portland State’s top tacklers are safety Dean Faddis and linebacker Jaycob Shoemaker ... The Griz have won their last seven games against the Vikings and 15 of their last 17 meetings.