After two straight Saturdays trying to stop pass-oriented offenses, Portland State head coach Nigel Burton and defensive coordinator Jaime Hill must now adjust on the fly and prepare the Vikings for Cal Poly’s hybrid triple option attack.
The Mustangs are looking for their first win of the season on Saturday in their home opener at Spanos Stadium in San Luis Obispo, Calif. (6:05 p.m., Watch Big Sky) after losing at New Mexico State (28-10) and South Dakota State (44-18) to open the season.
A year ago, Cal Poly was No. 1 in the FCS in rushing offense (309.1 yards per game). Two years ago, the Mustangs broke the Big Sky Conference record for rushing yards in a season with 3,890 yards in 12 games.
So far this season, it has been more of the same from the Mustangs’ triple option, which also integrates elements of the spread into the scheme as coach Tim Walsh, head coach of Portland State from 1993-2006, has a pro-style background.
The Mustangs netted 259 rushing yards against New Mexico State, averaging 5.3 yards per carry, and added 226 rushing yards at South Dakota State. Currently, Cal Poly leads the Big Sky in rushing offense with an average of 242.5 yards a game on the ground.
Portland State will definitely have its hands full defending the triple option while simultaneously being careful to guard against the pass since Cal Poly has exhibited a willingness to throw the football.
“Just the term triple option, every play there are three different things they can do off of it,” Burton said Wednesday on the Big Sky coaches teleconference. “It’s not a drop back, read one, read two and then go hit a guy by the time they get to three. It’s so fast and so downhill with so many different things that can happen.”
The basics of the triple option, Burton explained, are the offensive team “has a dive player, a quarterback who can keep the ball or flip it out (to a running back) and/or throw it to somebody. You could really call it the quadruple option. Everybody better do their job. It takes the speed and athleticism (of the defense) we have and negates a lot of it because of the cutting (cut blocks) that happens on your defenders. It’s tough being a great athlete that’s fast and strong if you’re laying on the ground.”
Juniors Chris Brown (threw for career-high 202 yards on 16-of-21 passing and rushed for team-high 87 yards on 20 carries at SD State two weeks ago) and Dano Graves return at quarterback for Cal Poly and the duo waged a battle throughout the spring and fall for the starting job.
Brown earned the starting job after combining with Graves for 10 starts, 1,052 rushing yards and 111 of the team’s 136 pass completions in 2013. Brown rushed for 66 yards on 17 carries against New Mexico State while completing one of four passes. Graves played the final nine minutes of the game, rushing three times for 12 yards and connecting on one of three passes.
Brown played every meaningful snap at South Dakota State two weeks ago. He is second on the Mustangs in rushing behind running back Kori Garcia, who has 170 yards on 28 carries (6.1 yards per rush).
Burton coached defensive backs at Portland State in 2001-02 when current Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh was directing the Vikings. However, PSU and Cal Poly have met the last two years, so the chances of an emotional teacher-student reunion are nil.
“Tim and I talk all the time, so I don’t think I’ll break out in tears or anything,” Burton said. “But he has always been a great friend and a mentor of mine. We’ve done this a few times already, so I don’t think that will factor in too much.”
Walsh, now in his 17th year as a Division I head coach (PSU was Div. II from 1993-95) and his sixth year at Cal Poly, needs three victories to reach 100 wins as a FCS coach. He led Cal Poly to a 7-1 record and a share of the Big Sky title in 2012 when he was named BSC Co-Coach of the Year.
“One thing I’ve always known about Tim’s teams is how passionately they play, how hard they play and they execute,” Burton said. “Your hands are going to be full no matter what. It’s no different when he was here at Portland State. In terms of compare and contrast, I still see great athletes that are well coached.”
Through three games, PSU has thrown the football 111 times and run it 95 times. Burton said the higher percentage of passes compared to previous years is likely a byproduct of the Vikings’ schedule.
“Playing two Pac-12 (teams), being able to move them off the ball is sometimes a little different as the game wears on because they still have 280 pound defensive ends,” Burton said. “We’ve also got quarterbacks where this is their third year in the system, so they are much more comfortable. And we have receivers that are seniors and juniors that have been in the system for a number of years. Their comfort level (is high) and they have the ability to read and do some things.”
Keiran McDonagh (31-of-51 for 269 yards, 1 TD) took most of the snaps at quarterback at Washington State in part due to Paris Penn’s sore knee, but the Vikings could return this week to the same two-quarterback system they utilized against Oregon State and Western Oregon. Penn is averaging 8.9 yards per carry with TD runs of 58, 11 and 48 yards this season.
“We feel good about both those guys,” Burton said. “Paris has earned the right to play because of the way he has practiced and performed in games. It has given us some options and abilities to do some different things. Kieran is one of the premier quarterbacks in the conference. So, (the fact we have a two-quarterback system) is more of a tribute to Paris and what he brings.”