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Q&A with Portland State beat writer Joe Terry ahead of Montana's Big Sky opener

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MISSOULA — Portland State is off to a 0-2 start but has played two FBS teams.

The Vikings nearly upset San Jose State in their season opener before falling 21-17. They followed up that loss with a 52-6 defeat against FBS Washington.

The Vikings face their first FCS opponent when they play second-ranked Montana (3-0) 2 p.m. Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula.

Joe Terry, who covers Portland State for Big Sky Valhalla, sat down with 406mtsports.com to share an inside look at this season’s Vikings team.

Q: What’s the vibe around Portland State after a 0-2 start and an early bye week?

A: The vibe has been confident around this team since the summer. There's a togetherness surrounding this team that stems from age and experience. Most of the starters started last year and are in a COVID-induced fifth or sixth season. This team has also grown up together. A handful of the key contributors joined the team back in 2017. There have been a handful of transfers sprinkled in.

The bye week was strategic. The Viks had a choice of off weeks to schedule their final game this summer. They could've scheduled their lone nonconference home game in Week 3 as a bounce back from two tough FBS opponents or they could've recovered from those games and scheduled that game in their other empty week on Oct. 8, ahead of their game against Weber State. They chose to rest up for their toughest road environment in conference this season. They also opted to use their lone charter flight for this trip to be better prepared for the game.

Q: How well have you been able to evaluate the Vikings given that they’ve played two FBS teams?

A: With 22 fewer scholarship players, PSU is always going to be at a depth deficit in those games and usually playing against faster and bigger opponents. That was certainly the case against Washington, though it turns out this season's Husky coaching staff has fixed whatever the Griz broke in Seattle last season. The Viks were much more impressive against a lower-level FBS squad in San Jose State, doing more than enough to win that game before letting it slip in the final minute.

In general, you look for littler things to see if the results will translate once the team hits the Big Sky. Are there a bunch of penalties? Are they out of place or missing assignments? Do those losses, even when they're clearly outmatched, cause infighting or bickering in the team? For the most part, I didn't see any of those issues the first two weeks, though it's a limited sample size. The Viks were prepared all offseason to weather the front end of their schedule, and it seems that they've done that entering Montana.

Q: What stands out about PSU’s offense and how is it similar or different than past years now that it has a new quarterback, a transfer running back and some quality wide receivers.

A: Dante Chachere, the Viks new QB, is fast and adds a different element to the offense than longtime starter Davis Alexander did while using his legs to extend plays down the field. The coaching staff has limited his runs in the nonconference in an effort to keep him healthy for the Big Sky, but I'd expect that to change this week.

He's given more space to run by the Viks ability to stretch a defense with waves of quality pass-catching talent, led by the unguardable Beau Kelly. The Viks have six or seven receivers they trust to get open in space and move the sticks, which leads to plenty of four and five-wide sets with a slew of rotations.

The running game has been stuffed the first few weeks, though again, that was to be expected against the opponents they played. Boise State transfer Andrew Van Buren got the bulk of the carries in the first week, but there are three backs the staff trusts, and the backfield options should be all available after the week off.

Q: Similarly, what are the strengths and weaknesses of PSU’s flex defense, which has a couple All-Americans, and how does it compare to previous years?

A: The flex defense relies on getting pressure on the quarterback to force mistakes that would allow the speed on the back end to clean up. It's not anything groundbreaking — but like, say, the run-and-shoot offense — is unique in that it hasn't been widely popular in a long time and is something that needs to be singularly prepared for. Speed up the sideline has caused issues in the past, and if the front isn't hugely disruptive, it can have trouble getting off the field.

Luckily, the Viks have a ton of talent up front, led by VJ Malo and linebacker Parker McKenna. Defensive back Tyreese Shakir got three sacks in the opener and an interception against Washington. Anthony Adams has been an impact player forever. They're going to get theirs in the conference, but without a ton of depth, they'll have to avoid injuries to really push for a playoff spot.

Q: What’s your score prediction for this game and why?

A: How good is Montana? The defense is clearly elite and the offense has been up to the challenge in the first few weeks. Are the Griz closer in talent to Washington or San Jose State? That's a wide gulf, but I'd guess that it's the latter, even with last year's upset still fresh in everyone's memory.

The Viks have won two of the four regular-season meetings against Montana in the Bruce Barnum era, including the only game in Missoula, and every loss has been within two scores. This game will be closer than I'm guessing the rest of the panel and most of your readers will predict.

I'll keep the trend going: Portland State 21, Montana 17.

Frank Gogola is the Senior Sports Reporter at the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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