In a season water logged with a flotilla of frustrating moments for Portland State offensive coordinator Bruce Barnum and quarterback Kieran McDonagh, rock bottom was struck with 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s home loss to Idaho State.
Trailing 24-13, the Vikings were driving efficiently towards a touchdown that would propel them to within four points of the Bengals. Starting from the PSU 39, McDonagh completed seven straight passes, the last one being a bullet to Thomas Carter for 18 yards to the ISU 1-yard line.
Portland State had first-and-goal. The ball was placed by the officials within a few inches of the goal line. Surely, the Vikings would score a touchdown and get right back into the game.
Barnum looked down on his play sheet and had a choice of four plays. He called for a pass into the right corner of the end zone.
McDonagh took the snap, rolled right and lofted the pass into the end zone according to the play design. Idaho State cornerback Vai Peko rose up in front of a PSU receiver, snatched the ball and managed to get one foot down before tumbling out of bounds.
As you would expect, Barnum demonstrated his exasperation on the sideline as McDonagh and the Viking offense strode off the field in disbelief.
Less than two minutes later, McDonagh fumbled at the PSU 22, the fifth of six Portland State turnovers on the night, and Idaho State converted the miscue into an 18-yard touchdown run and an insurmountable 31-13 lead.
So, in spite of almost matching the Bengals in total yardage (430-424) and offensive plays (83-79), and registering more first downs (24-23) and rushing yards (145-111) than Idaho State, the Vikings were outlasted on the scoreboard by more than a 2-to-1 margin.
Obviously, the half dozen turnovers, which included four interceptions thrown by McDonagh, were the main culprits to the Vikings falling short for the sixth time this season.
“I don’t care who you’re playing, you’re not going to win with that many turnovers,” Barnum told Viking Takes on Tuesday. “Everybody in America knows that. I don’t care if the defense makes a play on us. That’s part of the game, that’s football. They have good players too. But when we make bad decisions, that’s what we can’t have. All six of them (the turnovers) were not great plays by the defense.
“Obviously, there’s going to be some frustration when you turn the ball over that much. The (interception in the end zone from the 1-yard line) was the culmination of the frustration level. We had four plays for that situation. I called the first one and we threw it to the wrong people.”
The promising fourth-quarter drive to the Idaho State 1-yard line ending in the interception showcased the best and worst of McDonagh. He made a lot of good throws throughout the game, but some poor ones as well. Four of them were picked.
“We were moving the football and getting a little rhythm going and some of them were awful decisions,” Barnum said. “And some of them we have to make plays. You’re going to be covered sometimes. I can’t scheme something where you’re going to be open all the time. Sometimes you have to go up and make a play.”
McDonagh, who made his 29th career start at quarterback for the Vikings last Saturday, should have known the ball into the stands when he saw the PSU receiver covered. Instead, he tried to force the throw through a narrow window with disastrous results.
“Kieran knows to throw that ball into the 15th row and let’s go score and we still have a chance to win a football game in which we’ve played poorly,” Barnum said. “We would have been right in the game in the fourth quarter with that many turnovers.
“Next week, if our offense faces that situation again, I’ll make sure our guys have a chance to score. We’ll get after them.”
After nine games, McDonagh continues to struggle in terms of completion percentage (50.8 pct, 133-262) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (8-11). Inconsistency has been the calling card all season.
“In the past, we’ve used tempo to try to get the spark back,” Barnum said. “It usually works. We simplify the calls so nobody is thinking and make them play fast. That has worked. On that drive (resulting in the interception), we went empty (backfield), we sat behind the defense, we picked them apart and we got it down there. Then the first play is a turnover. In those situations, we have to make sure we make the right decisions.”
— Paris Penn returned to action briefly against Idaho State with three rushes for 18 yards and a pass completion for 13 yards. But he was injured again and his status for Saturday’s game at Montana State is questionable. Barnum said when Penn returns, he will remain a pocket passer since he has been injured multiple times on runs. “He will be a normal quarterback. If he happens to take off, he takes off,” Barnum said. “Hopefully, we’ll have him back this week, but it might be tight.”
— Barnum has integrated the fly sweep into the Portland State offense in the last two games in order to bring a horizontal dimension to PSU’s offense and force defenses to go sideways. “What it gives me is a way to horizontally stretch a defense if they pack the box,” Barnum said. “We ran it against pressure a couple of times and got some mileage out of it. It’s a way to beat Cover 1 if you’re not going to blitz. It makes the defense think about the perimeter.”
— Portland State ran the football 34 times and threw it 45 times against Idaho State. “We tried to take what they gave us,” Barnum said.
— Portland State’s leading rushers after nine games: Shaquille Richard (531 yards on 96 carries), Steven Long (507 yards on 66 carries) and Nate Tago (270 yards on 67 carries). PSU is fourth in the Big Sky in rushing offense (207.1 yp[g) and eighth in total offense (386.6).
— Kasey Closs leads PSU with 42 receptions for 538 yards (12.8 yards per catch) and four TDs. The senior enjoyed one of his best games of the season with nine receptions for 139 yards and one TD in the loss to Idaho State.