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No. 17 Montana at No. 12 Portland State

Griz preview: Tall task ahead in giant-killing Portland State

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Montana safety Eric Johnson looks for play calls from his coaches during last week’s game against North Dakota.

As the gap closes between the Football Championship Subdivision and the Football Bowl Subdivision's lower half, the so-called Group of Five, FCS wins over FBS teams are no longer all that rare. Three teams on Montana's slate this fall picked up W's over their richer foes.

But two wins over FBS schools in one year? That's a whole new league. It's one of the many things that has Grizzly head coach Bob Stitt wary of Portland State this week, his team's giant-killing opponent for Saturday.

"I think they're very dangerous," said Stitt, whose Griz go into the Vikings' den, Providence Park, for a 3 p.m. Big Sky Conference kickoff. "You can go into two FBS places and beat 'em and walk out of there with a check, it's a pretty big deal."

The No. 12 Vikings (3-1 in Big Sky, 6-1 overall) haven't been ranked so high since 2002, but they've gotten there because of balance. Not just between the run and the pass, but by being excellent on both sides of the ball.

The offense has been good for 38.4 points per game -- that's a touchdown and a field goal better than the No. 17 Grizzlies (3-1, 4-3) -- and the defense started the season on a near-historic tear. In wins over FBS Washington State and North Texas, PSU allowed just 24 combined points.

And yet the Vikings are still flying under the radar to some. First-year head coach doesn't mind at all.

"I think the magic thing is we're still not picked to win a game," said Barnum, whose interim tag was removed by the university two weeks ago due to the early success. "This week we are not supposed to beat the University of Montana. Nobody in America is picking Portland State over the Griz.

"That part still travels, that helps (the players) focus a little bit."

***

Too many more wins and that won't be the case, though much like the Griz the Vikings' home stretch is tough slogging. For PSU, continuing a dream season of #BarnyBall requires avoiding the pitfalls that befell North Dakota last week vs. the Grizzlies.

Third-string quarterback Makena Simis carved up UND for a school-record-tying six TDs in that win. PSU plays very well against the pass -- only Southern Utah has allowed fewer TDs through the air -- and keeping the Griz deep ball in check is a major priority.

"Everybody has to have great eyes and be in their position," said senior safety Patrick Onwuasor, the Big Sky interception leader (4) on the league's most heist-happy defense. "We'll mix (the coverage) up from time to time depending on what we're going against."

Teams have had success limiting Montana's passing attack with zone defenses, or at least in avoiding costly assignment lapses caused by UM's talented receiving corps.

It happened over and over last week when both Ellis Henderson and Jamaal Jones caught two touchdowns while matched up one-on-one with defenders.

"Honestly, coming into the season I kinda expected zone," Henderson said. "Like two high guys covering us, especially on the outside bracketing us more. Having these man looks was a big surprise to me."

The Griz forced North Dakota into a man-to-man look because of a renewed success running the ball. When North Dakota had to put an extra tackler in the box to defend the run, which Montana went to 45 times, the Griz gashed them deep.

"At some point you're gonna end up getting some man coverage if you continue to run the ball and we've got to be ready for it," Stitt said.

***

The Vikings have shown an ability to play with any kind of opponent this season, grinding out wins or reloading the guns in a shootout.

Two weeks ago the team ran for 465 yards in a home win over Montana State. This week's opponent carries a much stiffer defense, Coach Barnum said, crediting Montana's defensive staff down the line by name.

"Defensively, I've looked at every film from start to finish," Barnum began. "They're a tough bunch. They play the game like it's supposed to be played. I can't find any holes yet, but I'll keep watching."

Montana's D has been its rock all season, leading the Big Sky in sacks (24) and ranking just a few points behind Portland for third in scoring (19.1 ppg to 21.9 ppg).

Last week the Griz showed their first flash of offensive prowess since August, making for a scary combination if the complement can be continued. For the Griz to be playoff bound come Thanksgiving, they'll need it to.

"Probably the two best defenses we've faced, we've had the best days offensively," Stitt said, referring to wins over North Dakota State and then North Dakota. "I think (Portland State is) right there. There's a reason they're where they're at."


NOTES: The Griz have won eight in a row over the Vikings, their last loss coming in 2004 in Portland. ... PSU's only loss this year came to North Dakota, the team the Griz just beat, while the Vikings downed Cal Poly last week, a team that beat the Griz. ... Portland State's 66-7 victory over North Texas on Oct. 10 set an NCAA record for FCS margin of victory over an FBS team (59 points).

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