A dynamic runner and dangerous passer, quarterback Dakota Prukop is the driving force behind Montana State’s high-octane offense.
Upstart Portland State is thriving behind a stout defense that ranks as one of the best in the FCS.
Saturday’s Big Sky matchup in Portland pits strength against strength as Prukop and the 16th-ranked Bobcats look to extend their winning streak in the series to nine straight while the No. 17 Vikings try to build on another impressive victory over an FBS team.
Montana State’s offense hasn’t been tested much, already facing the Big Sky’s three worst defenses, the conference’s seventh-ranked defense and Division II Fort Lewis. Prukop and company have taken full advantage as the Bobcats (3-2, 2-1) average Big Sky bests of 564.8 yards and 43.2 points.
The competition gets much stiffer, however, as Portland State (4-1, 1-1) is allowing conference lows of 294.2 yards per game and 11.4 points per game – the FCS’ fourth-best mark
“We need to match their effort,” Montana State offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey said. “I’ve seen a team (on video) that plays really, really hard on defense. They’ve got good players, (Sadat Sulleyman) up front specifically and (Jeremy Lutali) their Mike ‘backer, and they play really, really hard, that’s what jumps out at me.”
Lutali leads the Vikings with 44 tackles and Sulleyman has a team-high six tackles for loss. Cornerback Xavier Coleman and safety Patrick Onwuasor have three interceptions apiece for Portland State, which is tied for third in the FCS in turnover margin at plus-9 after ranking last in the Big Sky a year ago at minus-12.
The Vikings have already surpassed last season’s win total of three, and on Wednesday, first-year coach Bruce Barnum had the “interim” tag dropped from his title and was given a five-year contract.
When told of the signing after practice by director of athletics Mark Rountree, Portland State’s players gave the move a resounding seal of approval, leaping to their feet, cheering and chanting “Barny-Ball! Barny-Ball!” – the team’s slogan for its style of play and a take-off on Barnum’s name.
The Vikings were already riding high after demolishing North Texas 66-7 last Saturday for the largest margin of victory by an FCS program over an FBS team. They took a 45-0 lead into halftime and came within 62 seconds of recording their second shutout of the season.
Portland State, which opened the year with a 24-17 win at Washington State, is the third FCS team with two wins over FBS opponents in a single season and the first since North Dakota State in 2007.
The Vikings now turn their attention to Prukop, though, Barnum concedes he can’t be stopped.
Prukop is second in the Big Sky with 1,625 passing yards and his 16.9 yards per completion is second-best in the FCS. He leads the nation in total offense, averaging 409.8 yards, and has 14 touchdowns to three interceptions.
Named to the STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year Watch List, Prukop also leads the team with 424 rushing yards and has five touchdowns on the ground.
“Nobody can stop him,” Barnum said. “That kid is the real deal. … Offensively they’re lighting it up and nobody can stop him. Everybody’s trying to find a weakness, but with him there is none.”
Prukop accounted for 228 total yards – 135 on the ground – and two touchdowns in last season’s 29-22 victory over the Vikings.
Montana State, which is visiting Portland State for the first time since 2011, has won eight straight in the series since a 44-41 loss in 2005 – its only defeat in the last 12 matchups.
Though not as heralded as the Bobcats, the Vikings also have an explosive offense. They’re third in the Big Sky in scoring at 34.4 points per game and feature a rushing attack that ranks second at 238.0 yards per game.
Senior running back David Jones has a team-high 336 yards and averages 7.5 yards per attempt – the conference’s best mark among those with at least 25 carries – and quarterback Alex Kuresa is second on the team with 287 rushing yards.
In his first season at Portland State after transferring from BYU, Kuresa is also becoming more comfortable with the passing game. He has completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 411 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in the last two games after connecting on 47.8 percent of his throws for 294 yards with one TD and one pick in the first three.
“He’s a first-year guy in our system and I think we as coaches were expecting too much out of him,” Barnum said. “So we simplified a few things, we made a few things easier all around and they paid off.”
Barnum’s offense looks to expose a Montana State team that is yielding an average of 238.2 rushing yards and has given up 104 points in losing both its road games.
“I expect a great, competitive game Saturday and a lot of great individual matchups,” Bobcats coach Rob Ash said. “Portland State is a very well-coached team that plays extremely hard.”