First Look

FIRST LOOK: Vikings host Bobcats for first time since 2018

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Broadly, Montana State did exactly what Brent Vigen wanted during it’s non-conference schedule.

“I look at the three games as a whole and the one thing we did was ask our guys to play really hard and they did that all three games,” Montana State’s first-year head coach said following his second career win, a 52-10 decimation of an overmatched San Diego team from the non-scholarship Pioneer Football Conference. “Team offense, team defense and count on each other, trust each other, do our jobs and we’ve done that.

“I feel really good where we are at three games in. Far from perfect but that’s why you go through practice and play the games. Really pleased with our effort. Playing really hard right and that’s the No. 1 thing you need to do.”

Now begins the inaugural Big Sky Conference navigation for Vigen and part of the Montana State football staff. The Bobcats open up at a hungry Portland State squad that welcomes MSU to the City of Roses for the first time since 2018.

Montana State’s Troy Andersen rushed for 211 yards, the most ever by a quarterback in the Big Sky Conference, at Portland State in 2018/ contributed

Back then, Hercules turned linebacker turned quarterback Troy Andersen was guiding a Bobcat squad that rode the standout from Dillon to the first of two straight playoff berths under former head coach Jeff Choate. And Portland State was in the midst of trying to rebound from a 2017 campaign that saw the Vikings got 0-11 just two years after the second playoff berth in PSU’s Division I history.

Bruce Barnum is entering his sixth season and seventh year at the helm for the Vikings. He’s been at PSU in some capacity since 2010.

Can Montana State carry the momentum of consecutive dominant victories over overmatched opponents? A trip to Hillsboro Stadium will tell a great deal about a Bobcat squad that advanced to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs for the first time in 35 years in 2019 but has not played a conference game in nearly 22 months.

Barnum’s Vikings went 1-2 in the non-conference, losing 49-35 at Hawaii and 44-24 at Washington State before beating Western Oregon 21-7 thanks in part to 2,064 beers purchased for the Hillsboro faithful by Barnum himself.

QUICK HITS

Location: Portland, Oregon

Nickname: Vikings

Founded: 1946. Oregon’s largest school is the only public university in the state located in a major metropolitan area.

Enrollment: The commuter school has 28,241 students and a $73 million endowment.

Stadium: Hillsboro High School Stadium is a multi-sport stadium in the northwest United States, located in Hillsboro, Oregon, a suburb west of Portland. Opened 20 years ago in 1999 and owned by the city of Hillsboro, the award-winning stadium is part of the Gordon Faber Recreation Complex located in the northeast part of the city, adjacent to the Sunset Highway.

The facility hosts home football games for Portland State University and Century High School, plus state playoff games for the Oregon School Activities Association’s smaller school divisions. Hillsboro Stadium is also used for baseball, softball, soccer, and lacrosse and has hosted college and professional teams.

In Portland State’s first home game since the fall of 2019, the Vikings drew 3,124 people to a 21-7 win over Division II Western Oregon.

The Coach

Bruce Barnum, sixth season, 7th year at Portland State.

Barnum wrote one of the most compelling and entertaining storybook beginnings to a head coaching career when the longtime assistant took over as head coach at PSU in 2015.

Portland State head coach Bruce Barnum with Montana State head coach Jeff Choate in 2017/by Brooks Nuanez

Barnum had served as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator on Nigel Burton’s staff from 2010 until 2014. He took over a program fighting for its football life. And the energy he injected into the Portland State program that first season will remain the stuff of legend.

Despite having no travel budget and riding a bus to all but one road game, the Vikings defeated two FBS opponents (Washington State, North Texas) and five ranked FCS opponents on the way to nine wins and the No. 6 seed in the FCS playoffs.

Barnum has worked to reach that level again, largely moving away from PSU’s transfer-heavy recruiting style to prioritize high school talent. Portland State won just three games in 2016 and went 0-11 in 2017. PSU went 9-14 in 2018 and 2019 combined before the global pandemic derailed the program as much as any in the Big Sky.

“There’s more hats here than other places; that’s not an excuse but that’s a fact,” said Barnum, who won the Eddie Robinson Award as the FCS National Coach of the Year in 2015 but is 21-37 at PSU overall, including 14-26 in league play and 1-2 against Montana State.

“Are we the underdogs usually? Are we the underdogs this week? Yes. But we have a plan Saturday and we can get us all together, we can get it.”

PLAYERS TO WATCH – The Offense

Davis Alexander, quarterback, senior, 6-1, 195

On Saturday, Alexander will make his 33rd career start and his second against Montana State.

Davis Alexander

During his three-plus years as Portland State’s starter, the Gig Harbor, Washington native has been one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the league and one of the toughest gunslingers on the West Coast.

He has thrown for 7,128 yards (260 yards per game) including nearly 3,000 yards in 2019. In three games this season, he is averaging 356.3 yards per game. He has also rushed for 1,175 yards and 20 touchdowns, giving him 69 total touchdowns so far in his career.

“The quarterback, he is really good and he has a good compliment of receivers and he is what drives them,” Vigen said. “They have a good scheme, they are sound, they are well-coached so on offense, they have put up some numbers certainly against two FBS teams. They are challenging.”

Beau Kelly, wide receiver, junior, 5-9, 165

Barnum, a former offensive line coach before becoming a coordinator, has long put a priority on having a run-heavy offense with plenty of pistol and zone-read elements to it.

Beau Kelly

But this season, Portland State is only rushing for 100 yards per game compared to throwing for nearly 340. Part of that is because of Alexander, part is because of mitigating offensive line depth and part of it is PSU’s talent at wide receiver, led by Kelly.

One of the league’s top slot receivers leads the Vikings with 20 catches and is averaging more than 17 yards per catch through three games this season. He has also caught four of Alexander’s seven touchdown passes this season.

Kelly has 66 catches for 997 yards and seven TDs in his career.

Darien Chase, wide receiver, freshman, 6-1, 210

In a past life — realistically just three years ago — Chase was a state championship-winning, regionally recognized blue chip recruit who earned a full ride in the Big Ten.

Darien Chase

Back in 2018, Chase guided Union High School in Camas to the Washington 4A state title. He piled up five catches for 126 yards and a touchdown in his team’s state title game victory that season on the way to earning Seattle Times Co-Player of the Year honros and Washington Offensive Player of the Year courtesy of USA Today.

Chase’s consecutive 1,00-yard seasons and 28 total touchdown catches between his junior and senior years helped him earn the distinction as one of the Seattle Times’ five “blue-chip” recruits for his class within the Evergreen State.

Chase fielded scholarship offers from Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State and Utah but signed with Nebraska.

Because of one of the NCAA’s new rules, Chase caught a 13-yard gain and played in four total games — against Northern Illinois, Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa — but preserved his redshirt.

Chase has only been with PSU since joining the Vikings in May of 2020. He caught one pass for an eight-yard gain in Portland State’s 48-7 loss in Missoula to Montana last April. Chase pulled his hamstring early in that contest, leaving the action early.

So far this season, Chase is tied with Kelly for the team lead with 20 receptions. Chase accumulated 237 yards. He is still awaiting his first defensive touchdown.

THE DEFENSE — Players to Watch

Anthony Adams, defensive back, 6-0, 185, junior

As a sophomore, Adams blossomed into an All-American and the lynch pin in Portland State’s unorthodox flex defense.

Portland State defensive back Anthony Adams/ by Brooks Nuanez

The native of nearby Newberg, Oregon led the nation in passes defended with 24, including a school-record 19 pass breakups and a Big Sky-best five interceptions. His interception total ranked fifth nationally. He also totaled 56 tackles, two tackles for loss and blocked a kick.

That stellar season, which included 44 tackles, 11 pass breakups and five picks in conference games alone, earned Adams first-team All-American recognition from the Associated Press, STATS FCS, Walter Camp and Athlon Sports. He was also an All-Big Sky Conference selection

“Defensively, they have a challenging scheme with the Flex defense, which goes way back to Arizona Desert Storm way before most of your time,” Vigen said. “Coach (Payam) Saadat was at Cal Poly back in the mid-2000s way back when we played them at North Dakota State so I’ve seen that defense.

“Coach (Rich) Ellerson (former Cal Poly head coach) was the defensive coordinator at Arizona during Desert Swarm. It’s a defense that not too many people run and it does give people problems.

“It’s a defense that poses a lot of challenges. They come at you from different angles and they throw different coverage looks at you and we just have to be on the same page. Our guys need to be able to know what they are doing and do it as fast as they can.”

VJ Malo, defensive line, 6-1, 270, junior

The product of O’Dea High in the greater Seattle area was a two-year standout at Golden West College before transferring to Portland State. During his time in California’s top junior college league, he earned first-team all-conference and all-state honors in each season.

VJ Malo

As a sophomore at Golden West, he had 26 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and two interceptions. He finished with 18.5 tackles for loss and six sacks in two years.

Malo has been a menace for the Vikings defensive front so far this season. He had three tackles for loss in a 49-35 loss at Hawaii, including two sacks. The following week, Malo had 1.5 sacks and two tackles for loss in a 44-24 loss at Washington State. And last week, Malo had two sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss in a 21-7 win over Division II Western Oregon.

“He’s a very active guy and the scheme frees guys up and he has been a guy who has had some of those opportunities,” Vigen said. “When he has been given opportunities, he has made plays. He has all the things you want in a defensive lineman so he’s definitely a guy you have to account for.”

Semise Kofe, defensive tackle, 6-2, 310, senior

Semise Kofe

To truly understand Kofe’s impact on the game, you have to watch him specifically. His disruptive ability and his aggressiveness in wrecking the interior of the line of scrimmage rarely shows up in the stats.

But Kofe is one of the biggest loads to move of any defensive lineman in the Big Sky. He has been limited this year in terms of statistical production but he has four sacks and 12 tackles for loss so far in his Portland State career.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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