Maybe victory in the Rockies just wasn’t meant to be.
Even before Portland State took the field at Northern Colorado on Saturday, three key players were unable to dress due to illness or injuries – center Chad Bach, linebacker A.J. Schlatter and running back Nate Tago were struck with ailments within the last 24 hours or so prior to kickoff.
Of course, those absences don’t explain Portland State allowing Northern Colorado to drive 88 yards in the final minute to score the game-winning touchdown with 23 seconds remaining as the Bears dealt the Vikings a heartbreaking 35-32 loss.
The loss dropped the Vikings (7-2 overall, 4-2 Big Sky) into a third-place tie in the Big Sky standings with red-hot Northern Arizona (3 straight wins) and Montana with identical league marks, and sets the stage for a must-win game for Portland State Saturday against Big Sky leader Southern Utah (7-2, 6-0) if they want to keep their regular season title hopes alive.
Statistically, Portland State dominated the game, but a poor start, horrid third quarter and a nightmarish final minute doomed the Vikings to their second loss of the season.
Portland State outgained UNC (500-483), collected more first downs (27-20), ran 15 more plays (84-69), committed six fewer penalties (7-13) and held UNC to 3-of-12 on third down opportunities.
Yet, the Bears walked out of Nottingham Field in Greeley, Co., with the dramatic victory.
UNC jumped out to a 14-0 lead before most fans were settled into their seats, scoring a pair of touchdowns on rapid 87 and 80 yard drives on just five and three plays, respectively.
“We come out and in the first two series on defense we didn’t tackle very well and they made some plays,” Barnum said. “All of a sudden, we’re down 14. I didn’t like how we started. We started slow. We got there and they hit us and took control.”
Battling uphill, the Vikings battled back to within 21-17 at halftime when Alex Kuresa hit Darnell Adams with a 19-yard TD pass with 19 seconds left before halftime.
“(After UNC jumped out 14-0), I thought we would score enough to stay in it,” Barnum said. “We didn’t have to get ahead. We did. We put 17 on the board and I felt fine going into halftime. But we can’t start a game like that in the Big Sky. You can win or lose every week in this conference.”
The third quarter couldn’t have unfolded worse for Portland State, though. On the second snap of the Vikings’ second possession, a mishap in the offensive backfield put the ball on the ground and UNC scooped up the fumbled and scored on a 24-yard return to give the Bears a 28-17 lead.
Two snaps into PSU’s ensuing possession, Vikings quarterback Alex Kuresa was intercepted at midfield. After punting on its fourth possession of the second half, Barnum gambled on fourth-and-11 from the UNC 34 on the first snap of the fourth quarter, but Kuresa’s pass to Trent Riley fell incomplete.
Portland State’s first five second half possessions produced two punts, loss on downs, fumble return for a TD and interception.
Not exactly how Barnum drew it up on the blackboard.
“Coming out in the second half, I wanted a 14-point swing after we scored right at the end of the first half,” Barnum said. “It didn’t happen and it went back-and-forth. Then, we have a snafu with two turnovers in a row. Our running back was trying to help out on a blitz and he knocked the ball out of Alex’s hand. They pick it up and score.
“Next series, Alex probably made his only bad play of the game (on the interception). He was probably trying to do too much because we just had a tough turnover. Instead of his checkdown being his feet with no rush, he throws a ball to them trying to thread the needle. But the defense held and momentum swung back us.”
— Nick Krupke (@NickKrupke) November 9, 2015
Yet, the Vikings were still within striking range early in the fourth quarter. When the defense forced a punt, the offense drove 95 yards in five plays as Kuresa lofted a 64-yard TD pass to Darnell Adams with 9:41 remaining. David Jones ran in for the two-point conversation to slice the deficit to 28-25.
About 4-1/2 minutes later, the Vikings took their only lead of the game at 32-28 on Steve Longs’ 25-yard TD run.
Needing a TD to win, UNC got the ball back on its 12-yard line with 57 seconds remaining. On the first play, the Bears completed a 58-yard pass to the PSU 30. On second down, UNC completed a 28-yard pass to the PSU 2. Two plays later, Bears running back Trae Riek powered over for the winning TD with 23 seconds left.
“Their first play went for a long gain because one of our guys went for the pick and was inches away,” Barnum said. “Then we missed some tackles and their guy makes a great run. Then we’re in trouble.”
Portland State had one final opportunity, but didn’t get beyond the 37-yard line as time expired.
Desmoun Thompson started at center in place of Bach. Schlatter fell ill and was diagnosed with mononucleosis. Hours before the game started, Tago’s lower back went out as an old injury flared up out of nowhere.
“We get off the airplane and Chad had a 105 temperature fever, so we rushed him to the hospital,” Barnum said. “We lost our pounder when Nate Tago couldn’t play. There were some great efforts by guys that stepped up in their spots. We had some adversity and I was proud of how our guys reacted.
“But at the beginning of the game they took the game to us. Then we had some self-inflicted turnovers. Our guys didn’t quit. It would have been easy to stop playing, but they kept battling. Kudos to Northern Colorado. They made plays and played lights out. They made more plays than we did.”
— Big Sky FB WarZone (@BigSkyFBWarZone) November 9, 2015
BIG SKY RESULTS (Nov. 7)
Northern Colorado 35, Portland State 32
Southern Utah 34, Montana State 23
Montana 33, Idaho State 27 (OT)
Weber State 23, UC Davis 3
Northern Arizona 52, Eastern Washington 30
Cal Pol 36, Sacramento State 14
BIG SKY STANDINGS
Southern Utah 6-0 (7-2)
Eastern Washington 5-1 (6-3)
Portland State 4-2 (7-2)
Northern Arizona 4-2 (6-3)
Montana 4-2 (5-4)
Weber State 4-3 (5-5)
North Dakota 3-3 (5-4)
Northern Colorado 3-4 (5-4)
Montana State 2-4 (4-5)
Cal Poly 2-4 (3-6)
Idaho State 1-5 (2-7)
UC Davis 1-5 (1-8)
Sacramento State 1-5 (2-7)
— Portland State FB (@viks_football) November 7, 2015