By JOEL CARLSON
All five of Portland State’s touchdowns came on scoring plays of 35 or more yards, and three first-quarter interceptions and a steady game-long downpour held Montana in check as the Vikings rolled to a 35-16 victory over the Grizzlies Saturday afternoon at Providence Park in Portland.
Portland State (7-1, 4-1 BSC) led 21-10 at the half and was never threatened in the second half by a Montana team (4-4, 3-2 BSC) that struggled to get much going offensively in the wet conditions. The Grizzlies generated a season-low 294 yards of offense, just 134 through the air.
“It was tough out in the elements today. We weren’t real sharp with the passing game. The rain made it tough,” said first-year coach Bob Stitt, whose team lost to Portland State for the first time since 2004.
The win kept Portland State on track to challenge for the Big Sky Conference title. The Vikings, who fell 19-17 to North Dakota for their only loss, trail league leaders Eastern Washington (6-2, 5-0 BSC) and Southern Utah (5-2, 4-0 BSC) by a game, but the Vikings get a shot at both teams in November.
The Grizzlies, meanwhile, put themselves on the playoff bubble with their fourth loss. Montana closes its season with Idaho State, Eastern Washington and Montana State. The ISU and MSU games are on the road. One more loss would end the Grizzlies’ chances of returning to the playoffs.
“That’s a team that’s beat two FBS team, so this was a game that could have really helped us in the national eye,” said Stitt. “But we’re not even really talking about playoffs at this point. We’re just trying to win games.”
One week after creating a national buzz with six touchdown passes in his first career start in Montana’s 42-16 thumping of North Dakota, sophomore quarterback Makena Simis looked a little more mortal.
He completed just 15-of-36 passes and ended three straight first-quarter possessions with interceptions. All three were grabbed by Patrick Onwuasor, who upped his Big Sky-leading total to seven.
Simis’s Portland State counterpart, Alex Kuresa, was sensational. He ran for two touchdowns, threw for two more, and the fleet-footed escape artist did not once get sacked by a defense that entered the game with a Big Sky-high 24.
“He’s good. We knew we had to stop him to have a chance to win the game,” said Stitt. “We felt like we had him contained most of the time, but he just finds a way to get out of there. He steps up in the pocket, then bounces back outside. He’s tough to corral.
“And it’s not just him. They have a lot of weapons, and it makes it very difficult. They are a very, very good football team, especially on offense.”
After the Grizzlies opened the game with a three-and-out, Kuresa got to work. Facing third-and-19 from the Montana 41, he hit Thomas Carter for a touchdown. And that would start a trend. All three of the Vikings’ first-half touchdowns and four of their five scores for the game came on third down.
Onwuasor intercepted Simis for the first time on Montana’s next possession, which set Portland State up in Montana territory, but Eric Johnson got the ball right back for the Grizzlies with his first pick of the season.
Montana made its way inside the Portland State 40 on its next two possessions, but Onwuasor put an end to both drives. Montana finished the first quarter with 10 passing yards.
“We weren’t sharp early in the game, and they did a great job defending us,” said Stitt.
Portland State went up 14-0 on its first possession of the second quarter. Kuresa hit Chase Loftin for 23 yards, then three plays later, facing third-and-2, the Vikings used a flea flicker to bait Montana’s defenders, and the Grizzlies bit hard. Kuresa calmly hit Darnell Adams for 46-yard scoring strike.
Trailing by two touchdowns, Montana answered with its best drive of the day, going 92 yards in 10 plays to cut its deficit to 14-7 when Jeremy Calhoun went in from two yards out.
Then Kuresa struck again. The quarterback rushed three times for 65 yards on the Vikings’ next possession, and his read-option keeper from 35 yards out on third-and-8 made it 21-7.
Montana caught a break late in the quarter when Chris Lider’s punt hit a Portland State player and was recovered by the Grizzlies at the PSU 28. Montana would get first-and-goal at the nine, but a pair of incompletions forced the Grizzlies to settle for a field goal that made it 21-10 at the half.
Needing to get out fast to start the third quarter, Montana did anything but. Portland State went 76 yards on six plays to open the second half, with Kuresa going in from 49 yards out to make it 28-10.
On three third-quarter possessions, Montana rushed six times for five yards and completed one pass for four yards. All three ended with Chris Lider punts.
Caleb Kidder blocked a 47-yard field goal attempt by Portland State early in the fourth quarter to keep it 28-10. One PSU possession later, David Jones made it 35-10 when he got free around the right end on third-and-9 and scored from 37 yards out.
Simis scored from a yard out for the game’s final points with 5:43 remaining. His score capped an 11-play, 72-yard drive. The extra point attempt never was after a bad snap.
Twice in the fourth quarter Simis was sacked on fourth down in Portland State territory, a result worse than a downfield interception. A pass, no matter how desperate, at least has a chance.
“I think we were sitting back there a little too long and not getting the ball in the air,” said Stitt. “You stand back there long enough, eventually bad things are going to happen.”
David Jones led Portland State with 165 rushing yards. Kuresa added 119 to help the Big Sky’s No. 2 rushing attack (behind Cal Poly) finish with 339 yards on the ground. Simis, John Nguyen and Jeremy Calhoun totaled 160 for the Grizzlies.
Kuresa had just four completions, but they went for 121 yards and a pair of scores. The PSU defense limited Montana’s two big-play receivers, Jamaal Jones and Ellis Henderson, to a pair of catches and 30 yards.
Kendrick Van Ackeren led both teams with 11 tackles.
For Montana the unofficial playoffs — lose once and there will be no postseason — start next Saturday when the Grizzlies face Idaho State (2-6, 1-4 BSC) at 2:30 p.m. at Pocatello.