Vikings enter Big Sky play on Saturday at home against 13th-ranked Montana State

COURTESY PHOTO: PSU ATHLETICS/KAI EISELEIN - Quarterback Davis Alexander and Portland State look to open Big Sky play on Saturday on the right foot, but the Vikings face a challenging conference opener against Montana State at Hillsboro Stadium.Three games into the season, it remains hard to know what to expect from the Portland State Vikings football team.

Ready or not, the Viks figure to learn a lot more about themselves Saturday afternoon, Sept. 25, at Hillsboro Stadium.

Montana State, ranked 13th among FCS programs, visits for the Big Sky Conference opener. Kickoff is at 2:05 p.m. and the game will streamed on ESPN+.

PSU is 1-2, with road losses to FBS foes Hawaii and Washington State. The Viks are coming off an inconsistent offensive performance in a 21-7 win over Division II Western Oregon.

Montana State is 2-1, having thumped winless FCS foes Drake and San Diego by a combined 93-17 and losing 19-16 at FBS Wyoming.

As has been tradition at Montana State, the Bobcats want to control the contest with their ground game and a stout defense. The last time they visited Hillsboro Stadium, in 2018, Tim Andersen ran for 211 yards in a 42-23 MSU win. Andersen is now a key linebacker in the middle of the Bobcats' defense.

To open conference play with a win, the Vikings must play a cleaner game than they did on a windy and wet afternoon last week, when 10 penalties for 120 yards made the Western Oregon game more of a slog than anticipated.

Coach Bruce Barnum remains bullish on his team, listing the best leadership he's had in his six seasons as one reason for optimism. He likes the offensive line talent, but said that group still needs to get on the same page for the offense to operate consistently. Barnum likes his defensive line, led by end VJ Malo (5 1/2 sacks) and his defensive backfield led by All-American Anthony Adams.

Of course, Barnum likes the way senior quarterback Davis Alexander is playing. Alexander has thrown for 988 yards and seven touchdowns (with four interceptions) for an offense that has seen injuries hit the skill positions.

Junior Beau Kelly (20 catches, 344 yards, four TDs) and freshmen Darien Chase and Nate Bennett have allowed the offense to keep moving without projected starting receivers Mataio Talalemotu, who has missed the last two games, and Emmanuel Daigbe.

The depth has really been tested at running back. To provide help behind Malik Walker, freshman tight end Elias Spence and sophomore linebacker Zack Mandera have shifted to running back. Freshman Jalynnee McGee might return this week to the backfield rotation.

Whoever is called upon, execution is a must now that conference play has arrived. It's a message Alexander said he drills into teammates all week long.

"A lot of it (is) mental. We can't have 120 yards in penalties like we did last week. It's going to be damn near impossible to win a game if you do that. Then turnovers. You win the turnover battle, you win the penalty battle and then the field-position battle. Win all three of those, I think you have like an 87% chance to win.

"That (process) starts everywhere. That's not just on Saturday. It's about practice, coming out on Tuesday and not going through the motions."

Adams, the junior All-American defensive back from Newberg, knows there is a lot on the shoulders of veterans such as himself.

"I've learned that we have a lot of experience and we have a lot of youth, there's not much in between," Adams said. "So, it's going to be really important for our experience to carry our youth and for our youth to tag along with the experience this year. But we definitely have all the tools, all the pieces — as long as we can stay healthy."

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