Two things that have served Portland State well this season – run defense and turnover margin – abandoned the Vikings at the worst possible time in last Saturday’s FCS second round home playoff loss to Northern Iowa.
The 29-17 setback ended Portland State’s turnaround season at 9-3, a six-game improvement over 2014 in Bruce Barnum’s first year at the helm. Portland State qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2000 and now aim to make a spot in the 24-team field a yearly occurrence.
In order to advance to the quarterfinals, though, they must beat teams such as Northern Iowa, which hammered the Vikings for 432 total plays and three scoring plays of 59 yards or longer.
Portland State came into the game allowing 173.0 yards per game on the ground with a plus-16 turnover margin during the regular season slate.
But the Panthers made mincemeat of those numbers, amassing 401 yards on the ground, including touchdown runs of 59, 61 and 69 yards. UNI more than doubled the Vikings’ output in the running game (180 yards), averaging 7.4 yards per carry compared to 3.8 yards for PSU.
Almost half of Northern Iowa’s rushing yardage (189 of 401) came on the three long TD runs.
“It was all big plays, and then you add three turnovers to that,” Barnum told Viking Tales.
Northern Iowa quarterback Aaron Bailey lived up to his pre-game billing as one of the top dual threat quarterbacks in the country, finishing with 200 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries.
Here’s the catch – Bailey wasn’t even UNI’s leading rusher. Tyvis Smith collected 207 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries, an average of 9.9 yards per rush.
“We were holding them down and then all of a sudden, Bailey would take off,” Barnum said. “Then we would them down and Smith would take off. Once they broke through to the second level, they were gone. Those two were guys you could not catch.
“Going into the game, we knew we had to stop those two guys and prevent them from getting going. We knew that once they hit full stride, we weren’t going to catch them. For most of the game, our defense did a heckuva job. Then, there goes Bailey.”
Just as important, Portland State decisively lost the turnover battle, committing three miscues (2 INT, 1 fumble) while failing to generate any turnovers from the UNI offense or special teams.
The minus-3 turnover margin marked a radical departure for the Vikings this season as they stood second in the Big Sky in that statistical category when last Saturday began.
Worse, all three turnovers occurred in UNI territory, including a costly second quarter fumble by Paris Penn with the Vikings in the red zone.
“We had a chance to make a couple of big plays and came up short against a good defense,” Barnum said. “You’re not going to have many opportunities in a game like that.”
Portland State got off to a slow start, scoring just a field goal in its first seven possessions – five punts, fumble and field goal. Five of PSU’s first seven possessions were three-and-outs.
When the Vikings scored their first touchdown midway through the third quarter on a TD pass to wide receiver Chase Loftin, they trailed, 16-3. Six points was as close as PSU would get the rest of the way.
“We started slow. I’ll take the blame for that,” Barnum said. “We put in another run and a couple of other things. I just should have danced with the things that brought us here. That slowed us down offensively in the first half. It was a night when yards were tough to come by.”
Northern Iowa stacked the box in an attempt to stop the run and played zone behind it, Barnum said. The strategy worked as the Vikings totaled just 285 yards in total offense.
With the season over, Barnum and the PSU coaching staff turn their focus to recruiting. National Signing Day (first Wednesday in February) is less than two months away.
Last year, the Vikings took in a sizeable number of transfers, and the same thing could happen this year. Barnum said about 15 players have contracted the school about transferring. At the moment, Portland State has two “hard” verbal commitments, meaning there is little chance of flipping to another school, Barnum said.
Because Portland State’s season extended two weeks longer than most Big Sky schools, the Vikings are playing catch up, but that doesn’t bother Barnum at all.
“We’re a little behind, but we have a better product to sell,” Barnum said. “We had a couple of meetings to make sure everybody is on the same page as far as our needs. We looked at our roster, our offers, everything. Then we’re hitting (the road). I want it to be thoroughly organized and everybody is on the same page, communicating. We have to make sure we know what is being said to every kid and who has talked to them.”
Earlier this week, Barnum said a prospect offered by two other Big Sky schools contacted the Portland State football office and asked if the Vikings were interested.
“That’s a nice change up,” Barnum said.