One of Portland State’s pluckiest road wins in recent memory has clearly handed the Vikings control of their destiny as the 2015 season heads down the homestretch.
Already guaranteed a winning record, if Portland State (6-1 overall, 3-1 in Big Sky) wins the Big Sky regular season championship in Bruce Barnum’s first season as head coach, Saturday night’s thrilling 38-35 victory over Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Calif. could be seen as the moment when the Vikings proved their mettle.
But the last-minute win (Jonathan Gonzales booted a 27-yard field goal with 33 seconds left) accomplished something else – it heightened the importance of the final four regular season games on the schedule beginning with this weekend’s home clash with traditional conference power Montana at Providence Park (2:05 p.m.).
The final four opponents on Portland State’s schedule (Montana, Northern Colorado, Southern Utah, Eastern Washington) are a combined 13-4 in Big Sky play with three positioned amongst the top four teams in the conference standings.
With identical 4-0 league marks, Eastern Washington and Southern Utah are both unbeaten against Big Sky foes, while Northern Colorado lost Saturday to EWU on a field goal at the buzzer. Montana is 3-1 in the Big Sky and garnered national attention earlier this season when they knocked off four-time defending national champions North Dakota State in the season opener.
Portland State firmly planted themselves into championship contention by overcoming a long two-day bus ride to central California and significant shortcomings on the statistics sheet to somehow beat Cal Poly.
How did the Vikings pull off the improbable win despite being outgained by 150 total yards (536-386), Cal Poly controlling the ball for almost 35 minutes and the Mustangs converting 8-of-17 third down opportunities?
Turnover margin and resiliency.
The Vikings forced four turnovers from Cal Poly and won the decisive turnover margin battle by plus-3, normally a necessity for winning anywhere on the road. PSU converted the four miscues into 13 points, obviously the difference in the game.
“We found a way to win,” Barnum told Viking Tales. “They got after us up front. We struggled running the ball. So, we had to do something different in the second half to score. We went five wide. The saving grace was the four turnovers by the defense and special teams. That was the game.”
In addition, Portland State courageously countered every Cal Poly second half score with points of their own, particularly in the third and early fourth quarter.
After Cal Poly drove 80 yards in seven plays (two rushes for 34 and 22 yards) to take a 21-13 lead with 10:48 remaining in the third, the Vikings responded with a 9-play, 84-yard drive highlighted by quarterback Alex Kuresa’s 40-yard TD run.
Then came the biggest moment of the game.
Trailing 21-19, Barnum elected to go for two points and decided on a little trickeration. Former quarterback Josh Kraght took a pitch and hit Kuresa in the end zone on a pressure-packed throw to even the score at 21-21 with 6:54 left in the third q1uarter.
“What sealed the momentum was our little trick play for the two points,” Barnum said. “When we tied it up, the crowd got a little quiet. After that, the confidence settled in on our sideline after that drive.”
The Vikings never trailed thereafter.
“We put Alex in charge and he deked and dunked and took shots don’t the field,” Barnum said. “Beginning with the second series of the third quarter, I said, ‘This is not working (running the ball). We’re done.’ We threw away the play chart and changed what we were doing. Alex did it to a T.
“We scored 25 points in the second half. There weren’t many runs in there. The only runs were by Alex Kuresa. It was the piece we hadn’t had since the North Dakota game.”
The momentum surge in PSU’s favor continued as the safety Beau Duronslet recovered a Cal Poly fumble at the CP 44 and the Vikings converted the turnover into six points, along with a 28-21 lead, on Kuresa’s 10-yard scamper.
But Cal Poly answered quickly on a 57-yard TD pass to even the score at 28-28 by the end of the third quarter.
Kuresa hit receiver Trent Riley for 28 yards on PSU’s second snap of the ensuing possession. Five plays later, Kuresa was sacked on third-and-1 from the CP 27, but the Mustangs were flagged for a personal foul penalty, handing Portland State a first down at the CP 17.
On second down, Riley caught a 13-yard TD pass from Kuresa to give the Vikings a 35-28 lead with 13:17 left in the contest.
Riley, a UNLV transfer, led Portland State in receiving with five catches for 88 yards and one TD.
“Trent did some great things in that game,” Barnum said. “On his touchdown catch, they went cover zero and he was a mismatch. Alex recognized it and threw over the top for the touchdown. It was a cool play.”
Kuresa was 16-of-25 passing for 232 yards and two touchdowns, posting season highs in pass attempts and completions. It was also the second game this season he threw for multiple touchdowns.
As each game is logged into the books, Barnum’s decision to name the JUCO transfer as Portland State’s starting quarterback in preseason camp looks splendidly brilliant.
“He is getting better every game in a new system,” Barnum said. “He made a couple of checks in that last drive where he went after their new corner. He got us two first downs and got us far enough for a chip shot field goal.”
Portland State looked to take a 10-point lead after a major Cal Poly blunder (high snap over punter’s head) gave the Vikings the ball at the CP 9.
But PSU couldn’t take advantage as Jonathan Gonzales’s low 26-yard field goal attempt was blocked. Cal Poly took advantage of the special teams play by driving 80 yards in eight plays for a touchdown on a 29-yard run to knot the score at 35-35.
“They got the momentum left when we kicked that low field goal. That could have sealed it,” Barnum said. “It woke everybody up. But we finished the game with that drive.”
The see-saw second half found Portland State with the ball at its 38 with 2:27 left after a nice kickoff return by Kahlil Dawson.
Kuresa worked his magic, running for 12 yards and connecting with Riley for consecutive 11-yard completions before firing a clutch 9-yard pass to Darnell Adams on third-and-8 from the CP 26 for a critical first down.
With the Vikings in the red zone, well within Gonzales field goal range, the valuable first down forced Cal Poly to exhaust all three of their timeouts as Portland State positioned the ball for Gonzales in the middle of the field.
He calmly booted the game-winning 27-yard field goal with 33 seconds left.
Cal Poly had one final chance, but PSU defensive end Davond Dade sacked Mustangs quarterback Khaleel Jenkins, the presumed successor to Chris Brown, who missed the game with an injury, on the final play to preserve the Vikings’ vital road win, which snapped a three-game losing streak to Cal Poly.
“When we found out (Brown wasn’t playing), I told the defensive staff I hope that means we’ll get a couple of turnovers,” Barnum said. “In that offense, when you’re new at it, the ball is going to be on the ground a lot. The trick is getting them and luckily we got three (by the defense). It was a great job by our defense because they were moving the ball.”
— Portland State tied a school record by winning their fourth straight road game. PSU has now won four road games in a season five times. It has never won five in one season.
— PSU’s 6-1 record is its best seven-game mark since starting 6-1 in 2000.
— The latest Top 25 rankings should be released on Monday. Both Portland State and Montana (42-16 winners over North Dakota) have secured spots in the polls, making Saturday’s Rose City clash one of the biggest between FCS teams in the country.
— The Vikings have lost eight straight games to the Grizzlies.
— Running back David Jones left Saturday’s game with an injury, but should be ready to play against Montana, Barnum said. He was not listed on the injury report given to Barnum Sunday morning by the training staff. Jones’s playing time was limited Saturday night when PSU changed to a five-wideout alignment since they were having little success running the football.
— Portland State’s trip home took two days after they left San Luis Obispo late Saturday night and returned to the same hotel in Concord, Calif. where they stayed on Thursday night. The Vikings departed the hotel late Sunday morning and finally arrived back in Portland Sunday evening.
BIG SKY RESULTS (Oct. 24)
Montana 42, North Dakota 16
Eastern Washington 43, Northern Colorado 41
Montana State 63, East Tennessee State 7
Southern Utah 34, UC Davis 6
Northern Arizona 52, Weber State 36
Sacramento State 38, Idaho State 13
Portland State 38, Cal Poly 35
BIG SKY STANDINGS
Eastern Washington 4-0 (5-2)
Southern Utah 4-0 (5-2)
Portland State 3-1 (6-1)
Montana 3-1 (4-3)
Weber State 3-2 (4-4)
Montana State 2-2 (4-3)
Northern Arizona 2-2 (4-3)
Northern Colorado 2-3 (4-3)
North Dakota 2-3 (4-4)
Cal Poly 1-3 (2-5)
Idaho State 1-4 (2-6)
UC Davis 1-4 (2-6)
Sacramento State 1-4 (2-6)