When Portland State punted the first four times they had the football in Saturday’s 31-0 victory over Western Oregon, Bruce Barnum didn’t frustrated.
Instead, he told his team to keep grinding.
Early in the second quarter, the breakthrough finally came for the Vikings.
After the two teams had combined for seven punts in the opening 14:52 of the game (1-for-8 combined on third downs), the Wolves drove inside the red zone. Moments after a subtraction infraction pushed WOU back five yards, Portland State safety Patrick Onwuasor leaped to make an interception at the 3-yard line and returned the pick to the 40-yard line.
Borrowing a Hollywood phrase, the turnover proved the equivalent of releasing the Kraken.
Three plays later, on third-and-13, PSU quarterback Alex Kuresa, shaking off consecutive sacks on the Viking’s previous possession, completed a 46-yard pass to Darnell Adams down the right sideline to the WOU 17.
On the sixth play of the possession, the Vikings faced a third-and-10 at the WOU 17. Nate Tago (team-high 69 yards rushing on 15 carries) took a handoff on a draw play and sped 15 yards down the WOU 2 to give PSU first-and-goal.
Kuresa scored on a QB keeper on the ensuing snap to give the Vikings a 7-0 lead with 9:51 left in the second quarter.
The Vikings drove into WOU territory on their next possession and lined up for a 43-yard field goal by Jonathan Gonzales. However, PSU perfectly executed a fake as Josh Kraght ran 25 yards for a touchdown, giving PSU a 14-0 lead, and they were never serious threatened by Western Oregon thereafter.
“We talk blue collar. That was a blue collar win,” Barnum said. “It won’t go down in the book as fancy. We did what it took to win the game. We don’t need to run the score up on anybody. We just need to have more (points) than the other team after 60 points. That’s what they tell me.”
Less than two minutes later, Kraght’s 37-yard punt return set up the Vikings inside the red zone. However, the short drive bogged down and Portland State settled for a chip shot 24-yard goal by Gonzales with 2:14 left in the second quarter.
Doing the math, that’s 17 points scored by the Vikings within a span of 7:37 of the second quarter.
The Wolves never recovered.
“This team is mature and we saw that. There was no panic,” Barnum said talking about PSU’s slow start offensively. “They just kept going and played the field position and we finally got it. I told Kuresa early in the game punts are sometimes a good thing. He took two sacks on the previous drive. The second one probably shouldn’t have happened. But I told him we can’t win it on just one play.”
In the second half, the PSU defense continued to dominate and the Vikings added a pair of touchdowns by Nate Tago (1 yard) and Steven Long (22 yards) to create the final score.
Tago led PSU in rushing for the first time this season with 69 yards on 15 carries.
“After watching the film, I texted him (Sunday night) and told him I was proud of him because he played hard. He played well.”
Considering the Vikings were coming off a bye, Barnum was not surprised by Portland State’s offensive struggles in the first quarter when they gained just 58 yards on 18 snaps, an average of 3.2 yards per play.
“There was a little bit of rust from the bye week in that first quarter,” Barnum said. “We were playing field position. We just had to get it shined up again. Then it popped. The defense had a pick just when they were about to score and the game changed.
“We went down and scored off that (ensuing) drive and then special teams collected their paycheck and got a touchdown. I wasn’t ranting and raving up and down the sideline (when the offense was stuck in neutral in the first quarter). I liked how the defense was playing.”
Even though the two teams ran 146 plays, the fast-paced game took less than three hours to play. No single drive by either team lasted longer than nine plays. Just two of the 33 possessions drained more than three minutes off the clock.
The back-and-forth action was as close to tennis or ping-pong as you will ever get on the gridiron.
The two teams combined for 20 punts, 12 by Western Oregon. Portland State has now allowed just seven points in the last seven quarters of football.
“The defense played really well,” Barnum said. “Special teams were what they have been all year. They changed the game. Offense mudded out enough points to win the game. They came at us. They were loading the box because they didn’t want us to run the ball. We might have gotten a little too cute on what we wanted to run and that threw us out of rhythm early.
“We went back to the bread-and-butter later in the game and brought the fight to them up front. We scored some points and got out of there.”
Staying true to their identity, the Vikings ran the ball a whopping 59 times for 256 yards while the PSU defense limited WOU to 27 yards rushing. Kuresa was 8-of-18 passing for 127 yards.
Football protocol demands when one team outrushes the other by nearly a 10-to-1 margin, the chances of the team with the most rushing yards winning is overwhelming.
“I used to be a guy that when we were backed up at the 1-yard line we would throw a flea flicker and try to get a 99-yard play,” Barnum said. “But now I’m all about field position and let’s not give the ball away. When we have our chances, we’re going to score. Nut every game is different. We might get into a different type of game later on.”
Besides playing solid defense, Portland State won the turnover margin by plus-2 and committed just three penalties for 30 yards, proof the Vikings minimized serious mistakes.
“That’s the product I want to put on the field,” Barnum said.
BIG SKY RESULTS (Sat. Sept. 26)
North Dakota 31, UC Davis 24
Montana State 45, Cal Poly 28
Weber State 38, Northern Colorado 17
Montana 23, Northern Arizona 14
Portland State 31, Western Oregon 0
Southern Utah 55, Brevard College 7
UNLV 80, Idaho State 8
Eastern Washington 28, Sacramento State 20