MISSOULA — The sound of the ball hitting the concrete below the North end-zone echoed throughout a suddenly sullen Washington-Grizzly Stadium, the startling power of Cody Williams’ game-winning kick hushing a once-raucous homecoming crowd.
The only noise that could be heard was that of the Portland State Vikings partying in the middle of the field as a shell-shocked Montana team abruptly experienced its first reality check of Bobby Hauck’s second stint in Missoula.
“Throughout the whole fourth quarter, everybody kept coming up to me saying, ‘Hey, it might come down to you, get ready, we know you have it,” Williams said. “The whole team was supporting me. I’ve been dreaming of that moment for so many years. I’m glad it finally came down to it and I made it. This feels awesome.”
That elation could be shared both literally and symbolically as Portland State fights for its football program. The PSU administration suggested if the program were to survive it would need to become independently financially viable. That statement came in 2015, a year the Vikings entered the year with a head coach with an interim tag and not much enthusiasm.
A nine-win run that included two wins over FBS teams and five more victories over ranked FCS foes gave Portland State football an instant shot in the arm. Wins over Montana State and Montana in Portland that year marked the first time since the Vikings joined the Big Sky Conference in 1996 that the team had swept the storied programs from the Treasure State.
That run earned PSU the No. 5 seed in the playoffs, an appearance that marked the second in the school’s Division I history. It also earned interim head coach Bruce Barnum a five-year contract. It took Portland State football off life support.
What followed Barnum describes as a season of tragedy — outside linebacker A.J. Schlatter died of complications stemming from a tonsillectomy and left tackle Kyle Smith died of a drug overdose — followed by a season of dysfunction.
The dysfunction that trademarked 2017 began with a competitive effort in a 20-6 loss to BYU. Then came what Barnum called “a gut punch that turned the season” when Graycen Kennedy missed a 46-yard field goal as time expired in a 35-32 loss to Oregon State. Portland State lost all 11 games, giving them a 13-game losing streak entering this fall.
“Man, this one feels good,” Portland State senior linebacker Kasun Jackett said after notching a team-high eight tackles and forcing a fumble. “This is one of the first times we have played a full four quarters as a defense. Heading into the game, our coaches talked to us and told us that in the Big SKy, it’s any given Saturday. Anybody can win.
“This was a fun environment to play in. All day, our defense was hyped. We fed off the energy. That was a fun win, man.”
PSU gave up 141 points in losses to Nevada (72-19) and Oregon (62-14) to open the season. Portland State’s only win against four losses entering this week’s 600-mile bus trek to Missoula.
Portland State’s last win against an FCS team came on November 5, 2016. Portland State’s last win at Washington-Grizzly Stadium came in the iconic venue’s second season of existence in 1987.
As Williams’ kick split the uprights with authority, smacking into the John Hoyt Field lettering below the North end-zone, none of that seamed to matter. Portland State had one of the signature wins in its program’s history, particularly one of the most memorable in the school’s 23 seasons in Division I.
“It keeps it going from when I started when they gave me a contract for five years a couple of years ago,” Barnum said when asked about what the win meant for his program. “We are young. Not one person on this entire football team had ever been to this stadium. When I heard that on Monday when we had a team meeting, I was like, ‘Oh my god, really?’
“But we tried to prepare them for it. There’s always doubters. This kind of win puts a stamp on it. We will take that and keep running with it, try to bring it in to next week.”
Montana fumbled on its opening play, leading to a Portland State touchdown before the game was three minutes old. Montana’s second possession ended in a blocked punt. The next seven resulted in punts by UM senior Eric Williams as well.
Portland State defensive coordinator Payam Saadat’s flex defense kept Montana’s offense confused and devoid of any rhythm for the entire first half and most of the first three quarters.
“This defense we run, the system we run, Coach Sadaat, as soon as you figure it out, it’s a game of keeping ahead,” Barnum said. “If you are going this coverage and this coverage against the flex, everyone knows how to beat it. The trick is trying to stay ahead of the play caller on the other side.”
Montana ended up fumbling four times, including a crucial miscue by senior Keenan Curran with four minutes left that helped set up Portland State’s final possession. Quarterback Dalton Sneed and the Griz offense found flow for a brief time in the third quarter, turning a Griz forced fumble and recovery into a 13-yard touchdown run by Adam Eastwood right out of halftime and on a rapid six-play, 95-yard drive capped by Samori Toure’s 41-yard touchdown reception.
Other than that, Montana’s offense — a unit that entered Saturday averaging 38 points per contest behind Sneed’s league-leading 344 yards of total offense per game — looking stagnant and out of sync. The Griz did not earn a first down in the first quarter, finishing the frame with -5 yards. Montana mustered a season-low 289 of offense and converted just 2-of-12 third downs.
“I’m not overly happy with myself or our football team right now because I don’t think we played very well,” Hauck said. “That said I don’t think we are built to do anything but grind and try to find ways to win and we didn’t do that today. Starts at the top. Bad job by the head coach.”
Part of the romanticism of Barnum’s storybook first season came in the fact that the budget-strapped Vikings road a bus all over the country. Barnum called it his “Americana Tour”, spicing up trips that sometimes surpassed 1,100 miles by stopping at amusement parks and historic monuments along the way.
Riding a bus for 18 hours to Cal Poly is trying. Claiming a win against a unique opponent makes the ride back to the City of Roses much sweeter. Most of Portland State’s long road trips in 2015 were accompanied by joyous return treks.
That hasn’t been the case for the last two seasons as the young, hard-luck Vikings continued coming up just short, getting blow out or any result in between during a stretch that saw PSU win just six times in 26 games following the dream 2015 run.
Saturday at Washington-Griz, Portland State treated the daunting task like an opportunity, posting a seminal victory. The Vikings seized the moment for the first time since a 34-31 win at No. 18 Eastern Washington to cap the 2015 regular season, in turn notching a win that gives a program trying to find new life some extra room to breath.
“It’s a game of inches,” Barnum said. “No downgrade to Oregon State but last year, I felt better this game. This was a dogfight. We really wanted to win this.
“Has anyone won here since Youngstown State (in the 1993 Division I-AA playoffs)? I don’t know if they have. My group is so young, they didn’t quite know that Portland State has only won once at Washington-Griz. We just showed up and we sold this as the best venue in the FCS and three quarters of the FBS stadiums you will ever play in if you are Portland State.
“Last year, I tried to get our game to be played here instead of Hillboro. You can’t beat this place. You can’t beat that crowd and what they have built here. I’m the opponent and this is pretty sweet to win here.”
Photos by Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.