The Washington State Cougars host the Portland State Vikings at Gesa Field on Saturday afternoon (3 pm PT, Pac-12 Networks). The Cougs are looking to bounce back from a shocking opening loss to Utah State last weekend, while Portland State is hoping for a repeat of its 2015 trip to Pullman.
Portland State head coach Bruce Barnum was an interim coach for that 2015 meeting, a day that Coug fans would prefer not to remember but won’t soon forget. As such, Barnum is 1-0 career against Wazzu.
Let’s look at the key players and trends that will matter when the Cougs take on the Vikings.
If you want to hear more about this game, check out this week’s Podcast vs. Everyone preview episode. It’s a quick 30-minute look at the matchup, and we dive into more of what we expect from the Cougs, rather than the Portland State focus of this written preview. Listen below:
When Portland State has the ball...
The Vikings offense is led by quarterback Davis Alexander. The senior is a threat with his legs on both designed runs and scrambles, but he also put up 400 yards passing against Hawaii in the season opener.
Don’t let that passing yardage fool you, Portland State is typically a run-heavy offense. The Vikings utilize a lot of single back formations with a tight end (also known as “11” personnel), and can hurt teams with zone read and RPOs. Alexander is a key part of the rushing attack, as he was the team’s second-leading rusher in 2019. He’s particularly a threat out of empty backfields, where he may take off on a draw or find a seam to run out of pressure.
When Alexander hands the ball off, it will most often be to Malik Walker. He’s the most experienced returning running back, and he led the team with 11 carries for 58 yards and a touchdown in Portland State’s opener. Freshmen Jobi Malary and Jalynne McGee will also likely get opportunities on the ground.
When Alexander throws the ball, which he often does while moving out of the pocket, his favorite target was likely to be Emmanuel Daigbe. However, Daigbe didn’t play against Hawaii after missing Portland State’s spring matchup with Montana State due to a groin injury. If he does play, he’ll be Portland State’s most dangerous skill player.
If Daigbe doesn’t play, Beau Kelly is the Vikings’ top returning pass-catcher. He put up 132 yards and a touchdown on six catches in Honolulu. Freshman Darien Chase grabbed six passes for 105 yards. Chase originally went to Nebraska as a 3-star recruit in 2019 but did not play.
Another freshman, Nate Bennett, got the start against Hawaii. He caught five passes for 95 yards.
The offense is definitely Portland State’s strength. The Vikings averaged almost 35 points per game in 2019, and Davis is a playmaker that can cause trouble for an overaggressive defense. WSU will get burned if it overpursues and if it doesn't get home with pressure. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see Jahad Woods or Justus Rogers spy the QB at some point.
WSU’s defense wilted in the fourth quarter against Utah State, and the Vikings have made second-half charges with Alexander at the helm, including a 46-39 near-comeback loss against Eastern Washington in 2019. If Portland State struggles to move the ball early, the Cougs can’t get complacent.
When WSU has the ball...
The Vikings allowed an unhealthy 7.8 yards per play to Hawaii, including 12.2 yards per pass attempt. That continued a trend from 2019 when Portland State’s defense often undermined its productive offense (might sound familiar to fans of the 2019 Cougar football team).
Saftey Ryan Lesch is one of the leaders on the Viking defense. The senior missed most of 2019 with an injury, but that led him to redshirt and that’s why he is still playing in 2021. Lesch led Portland State with seven solo tackles and was second with nine total tackles against Hawaii.
He was topped in total tackles only by promising redshirt freshman linebacker, and all-name nominee, Justice Pagan. Among his 10 tackles, Pagan also notched 1.5 tackles-for-loss, including a sack.
Overall, Portland State seems to bring some unique pressures and defensive looks. The Vikings get a lot of sacks from non-linemen, and they emphasize turnovers. WSU will have to watch out for some weird stuff that could potentially derail a drive with a negative play. Avoiding big mistakes would also be smart—WSU has been generally good at avoiding turnovers with Jayden de Laura at the helm. Finally, the Cougs need to capitalize on Portland State’s aggressiveness with big plays.
The Bottom Line
This is not a game to measure how good the Cougs can be, but it is a game that could potentially measure how bad the Cougs are. In other words, this could be a measurement of the floor, but not the ceiling.
WSU should put up points on Portland State. They should be able to pick up big chunks on the ground. The wide receivers should be able to find space. The offensive line should dominate. The Cougs don’t need all those things to happen, but if one of them doesn’t happen, that’s a concern for the future.
Portland State’s offense is definitely capable of moving the ball on WSU. WSU’s defense has not played well, particularly in the second half, since Nick Rolovich and Jake Dickert took over and going back to Mike Leach’s final season 2019. If the WSU front is being pushed around again, that’s an issue concern. If not, move on to the next week.
This should be a comfortable win for WSU but has the potential to be frustrating at times.