MISSOULA — Montana will aim at redemption when it takes on Portland State at 3 p.m. Saturday at Hillsboro Stadium in Hillsboro, Oregon.
The eighth-ranked Griz dropped a 22-20 heartbreaker to the Vikings last year in Missoula but come into this meeting having already tied their win total from last year with a 6-2 overall record and 3-1 mark in the Big Sky Conference. The looming question for them is whether quarterback Dalton Sneed returns or if backup Cam Humphrey will be making start No. 2.
Portland State is looking for its own sort of redemption after having its three-game win streak snapped by Northern Arizona last week in a 31-29 loss on a field goal in the final seconds. The Vikings come in with a record of 5-4 overall, 3-2 in the Big Sky.
Here are five things to watch in the game, which will be shown on ABC/Fox Montana, broadcast on KGVO Radio, and streamed on Pluto TV and WatchBigSky.com.
Can Montana establish the run?
Whether Humphrey or Sneed starts, establishing the run should take pressure off a second-time starter or a potentially hobbled league MVP candidate, respectively. Montana showed it could control the trenches last week, running for 254 yards and three TDs on a season-high 55 carries.
Portland State’s flex defense will present a formidable, potentially confusing challenge. The Vikings lead the Big Sky and rank 16th in the FCS in rushing defense, holding teams to 108.6 yards per game. The eight rushing scores they’ve allowed are the third fewest in the league.
Can Montana slow down the run?
Montana’s defensive front showed up in a big way last week, holding EWU to 101 rushing yards and lowering its rushing defense to 125.8 yards per game, fourth in the league. The Griz will need the group of largely underclassmen and Jesse Sims to help make PSU one-dimensional.
Portland State boasts a host of backs and ranks third in the BSC in rush offense (212.8) behind run-heavy Montana State and Cal Poly. Sirgeo Hoffman is the lead back with 77.4 yards per game. Quarterback Davis Alexander adds 48 yards. Four others average between 19 and 35 rush yards.
Can Montana control field position?
The Griz produced short fields and forced EWU to face long fields last week. If they replicate that, it could help whoever starts at quarterback and possibly force PSU’s defense to get on its heels and stumble. Montana has an edge in special teams that could help it win that field position battle.
The Griz are 12th in the FCS in punt return yards while PSU is 81st in coverage. Montana is 36th in kick return yards while PSU’s coverage is 54th. Switching sides, UM’s kick coverage is 19th to PSU’s return ranking of 107. The Griz are fourth in punt coverage while PSU is 62nd in return yards.
Can Montana win the turnover battle?
Turnovers doomed Montana’s comeback bid against PSU in 2018, with its fourth fumble leading to the game-winning field goal. The Griz have corrected those struggles, losing just four fumbles in eight games. They have a turnover margin of plus-4, tied for the fourth best in the league.
Portland State has been strong at taking the ball away, leading the Big Sky with 11 interceptions and ranking third with 15 turnovers gained. The Vikings have turned over the ball 10 times, the same as Montana, and have a turnover margin of plus-5, tied for the second-best mark in the Big Sky.
Can Montana’s QB make more smart plays?
Montana doesn’t need Humphrey, if he starts for Sneed, to be Superman by forcing things; he just needs to play within the game plan and make smart choices. He could boost the offense with increased accuracy when taking shots and getting the ball into his playmakers' hands to allow them to operate. Protection will be key with PSU ranking third in the league in sacks (21).
The Griz will have to contain Alexander, who’s sixth in the BSC in total offense, averaging 275.3 yards per game. He’s a sneaky good quarterback and one who is largely underrated because the depth of prolific quarterbacks in the conference. Montana can’t allow many chunk yardage plays.
Five numbers to know
0: Portland State hasn’t lost at home this season, beating Div. II Simon Fraser, NAIA Eastern Oregon, Southern Utah and Idaho by an average score of 51.3-11.8.
4: Montana is 4-0 this year when running for more yards than its opponent and 2-2 when being outgained on the ground.
6: Montana is 6-0 this season when leading after the third quarter. It’s a marked improvement from last year, when the Griz blew four of their 10 fourth-quarter leads.
7: The Griz will be going for their seventh FCS win of the season, which would allow them to be in position for a potential playoff berth because they would reach the required win threshold.
192: Montana and Portland State have combined to outscore teams by 192 points in the second half of games. The Griz are tops in the FCS with a margin of plus-115 in the final two quarters, while the Vikings are tied for fourth at plus-77.