PORTLAND, Ore. -- Weber State football's brutal 2013 schedule looks like it's finally lightening up a little -- on paper.
Knock on wood, Wildcats fans.
After opening with a home win against Stephen F. Austin, the Wildcats suffered lopsided drubbings at in-state FBS foes Utah and Utah State. Four of their next five FCS opponents were all ranked in the Top 25 at one point this season -- including three currently ranked No. 3, 4 and 5.
With a bye week in the rearview mirror, WSU can see a break in the clouds ahead with a slightly less formidable four-game finish to the season, starting today at Portland State.
Despite a potent offense and a narrow loss to Cal of the Pac-12 early in the season, the Vikings (4-4, 1-3 Big Sky) are one of three Big Sky schools with a single league win. Weber State (1-7, 0-4) and Northern Colorado are the two teams without a conference victory.
Two years ago at Jeld-Wen Field, Weber State's football team sent coach Ron McBride out victorius in the final game of his college coaching career. With a 2 p.m. kickoff today in Portland, the Wildcats have an opportunity to give a lift to McBride's eventual successor, Jody Sears.
Not counting the (exceptionally brief) John L. Smith era, Sears took the reigns after McBride went 5-6 in his last season. WSU was 2-9 in 2012 under Sears as an interim coach; he was given a three-year extension after the season with the contractual caveat that, at the school's discretion, he could be released without penalty if he fails to reach four wins.
Four games remain in 2013 (at Portland State, Southern Utah at home, at No. 12 Montana and home against Idaho State), with the Wildcats three victories away from reaching the mark.
While the schedule seems more favorable to WSU on paper, there are no guarantees of more success as Weber State looks to end a seven-game losing streak. Portland State has a powerful offense, No. 12 Montana is historically a very difficult challenge for WSU in Missoula and in-state foe Southern Utah is 6-3 on the year, with a 3-2 league record identical to the Grizzlies', while Idaho State is a rivalry game.
If the 'Cats fail to reach four wins, significant indications of progress might still tip the scale in Sears' favor.
The Wildcats showed some forward momentum in a respectably competitive loss to No. 5 Montana State prior to the bye week. True freshman quarterback Austin Chipoletti threw for over 300 yards for the first time in his career, junior running back Bo Bolen rushed for a season-high 124 yards, WSU's defense was improved thanks to the return of all-conference star linebacker Anthony Morales and Weber State was in the game in the fourth quarter before falling 34-16 on Oct. 19 at Stewart Stadium.
"I've been really pleased with Chip, and the whole team for that matter, during the last couple of weeks of practice. That's been one of our demons -- shoot, we practice good; gosh, the kids come out with some good energy, their execution's been great. Like I said after Montana State, it was good to see some carryover (in the game)."
Now the challenge is to maintain that momentum.
"No question, it was nice to see the offense get some production and play some consistent football," Sears said. "That's been our whole focus all year -- consistency and execution.
"We're just looking to continue to make another step forward, to continue to make some growth and get better each week."
Weber State has won five straight against the Vikings, three in a row in Portland, but will need a big day from its defense to continue the streak.
Portland State leads the Big Sky and ranks fourth in the country in total offense (518.9 yards per game), though the Viks only managed 14 points in edging North Dakota, another team with only one league win, last week.
The Vikings are led on offense by senior running back DJ Adams, junior receiver Kasey Closs and sophomore quarterback Kieran McDonagh, who are second in rushing, second in receiving yards and sixth in passing in the Big Sky, respectively.
"They do a lot of things that, for us, create some problems," Sears said. "We've got to keep the focus on ourselves, our success will be dictated upon how we can execute, play hard, play united. We're going to have our hands full."
Morales will help in that regard. In his return from two games out with a hamstring injury, the senior linebacker led WSU with 13 tackles against Montana State and generally directed a defense that looked lost without him in a 47-0 thumping the week before at Cal Poly.
"It's absolutely crucial to have (Morales) because we got to see first-hand against Cal Poly what happens when you don't have him," Sears said. "He was probably about 80 percent against Montana State and he made a difference for us. He made some plays for us. Moving forward, he's a little healthier. He's been our bell cow, he's our leader and I'm looking forward to watching him (today)."
Weber State may also get some help on offense from junior receiver Shaydon Kehano. Kehano was WSU's top receiver as a sophomore in 2012, but missed the majority of last season with a season-ending leg injury. Kehano got a medical redshirt to repeat his junior year, but after suffering a similar injury in fall camp, he may finally make his season debut today.