Early last week, Portland State coach Nigel Burton walked into offensive coordinator Bruce Barnum’s office and closed the door.
The two men proceeded to discuss and debate the essential question of the day – who should start at quarterback for the Vikings when they faced Montana State in Bozeman last Saturday.
After watching junior quarterback Kieran McDonagh toss four interceptions and struggle with his accuracy and decision-making in a 31-13 loss to Idaho State a few days earlier, the two coaches agreed a fresh look was required at the most important position in football.
Enter redshirt freshman Josh Kraght.
Kraght started the season as PSU’s No. 3 quarterback behind McDonagh and Paris Penn. However, Penn’s shoulder injury suffered in the Sept. 20 loss at Cal Poly elevated the Lynden, Wash, native to No. 2 on the depth chart.
Too many turnovers by McDonagh and the Vikings offense – six against Idaho State – convinced Burton and Barnum to switch signal callers, although they realized starting a young quarterback with limited playing experience at Montana State in front of nearly 20,000 boisterous Bobcat fans could prove troublesome.
Kraght, though, coolly played like a veteran with two seasons as a starting quarterback on his resume. In his first career start, Kraght accounted for 314 yards in total offense – 218 passing and 96 rushing – and was responsible for two touchdowns without committing a turnover.
He guided Portland State on two impressive drives at the end of each half. With 32 seconds left in the second quarter, the Vikings had the ball on their own 25 yard line. Barnum was content to snap the ball once, take a knee and head to the locker room.
Burton had other ideas.
“Nigel came up to me and kind of smiled,” Barnum said. “He said, ‘Give the kid a chance.’ So, he went out there and I called what we needed to get the ball down the field. Josh executed it. He had ice in his veins. He was just like he was in practice.”
Kraght’s 28-yard completion to Darnell Adams with four seconds left moved the ball from the PSU 48 to the MSU 24, putting placekicker Jonathan Gonzales within range for a 41-yard field goal attempt. He drilled the kick through the uprights for a 22-13 halftime gap.
In the fourth quarter, PSO took over at its 2-yard line with 1:46 left. Kraght directed a seven-play, 98-yard drive in 1:01, culminating in his 50-yard TD pass to Thomas Carter with 45 seconds left.
All in all, Kraght enjoyed an encouraging debut as the starter even though Portland State lost, 29-22, to Montana State.
“I had confidence in the kid,” Barnum told Viking Tales on Tuesday. “I knew what kind of game I thought he could play by watching the film. He did it. He came through. It was very gutsy. He played as well as we could have expected. We just needed to make a couple of more plays to get on the right side of the scoreboard.”
When notified he would start at quarterback at Montana State, Kraght dove headfirst into the detailed preparation, studying video and the game plan for hours.
“He took off with it,” Barnum said. “He watched film into the night and crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i.’”
McDonagh, who has completed 50.8 percent (133-for-262) of his passes this season for 1,468 yards, eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions, ensured a smooth quarterback transition by not pouting, Barnum said. Instead, he enthusiastically assisted Kraght in his preparations at the same time he was battling in practice to regain his starting job.
During the game, McDonagh wore a headset and signaled in plays to Kraght.
“Kieran was great,” Barnum said. “He helped Josh out. He could have said the heck with this, but he took Josh under his wing while he was still fighting for the spot. He didn’t give up. It was good to see. He’s out there (in practice this week) and he wants the job back. That’s who Kieran is. He’s not saying, ‘Nice job, Josh.’
“We have a heckuva competition on our hands now. I think it’s great for (McDonagh). He was in my office today watching film. Both want the job. Both respect the game and they respect each other and they’re fighting to get it on the football field. It’s a battle. I like how they’ve responded.”
Excessive and unnecessary turnovers were the principal reason PSU decided to make a change at quarterback, Barnum said. The Vikings committed 19 turnovers in the first nine games, second most in the Big Sky behind Weber State (20), and had a minus-9 turnover ratio.
“That was the biggest thing,” Barnum said. “Based on Kieran’s decisions in (the Idaho State game), especially that (interception) in the red zone when we still had a chance to win the game, something had to be done.
“Nigel walked into my office on Monday and we sat down, shut the door and looked at everything. We decided to go with Kraght and give him an opportunity.”
Now Kraght gets an opportunity at Sacramento State on Saturday (2 p.m. kickoff, Rip City Radio 620 AM) to demonstrate his heartening performance at Montana State was no fluke.
“He did nothing to lose his spot, so he’ll be out there” Barnum said. “Kieran is ready. He is preparing like he’s the starter, so I have no concerns about that.”
Who is PSU’s No. 3 quarterback? Paris Penn will undergo surgery to fix his troublesome shoulder, so his injury-riddled season is over. Thus, wide receiver Thomas Carter, a high school quarterback for three seasons, could be utilized in an emergency.
In addition, Kraght will be throwing passes to an injury-riddled receiving corps on Saturday afternoon in California’s capital city. Kasey Closs (42 receptions for 538 yards) and Darnell Adams (27 receptions for 268 yards), PSU’s top two pass catchers, suffered season-ending injuries at Montana State.
Closs’ Vikings career is effectively over after breaking a bone in his foot. Meanwhile, Adams suffered a severe elbow injury on the do-or-die onsides kick with 45 seconds left that bounced out of bounds.
Alex Toureen, Stevie Coury, Carter and several receivers with virtually no experience will try to fill the void.
“We have a lot of excited young receivers,” Barnum said. “They’re all battling to become the featured receiver.”