Final Look: Viks face improved Northern Colorado

By Scott Hood  Nov 7 2015, 12:47 am — Leave a comment
Portland State Vikings Nottingham Field UNC

What: Portland State (7-1, 4-1) at Northern Colorado (4-4, 2-4)
Where: Nottingham Field (8,533), Greeley, Co.
When: Saturday, 11 a.m. PT
TV/Radio: No TV; Rip City Radio 620 AM and www.ripcityradio.com (Tom Hewitt and Mike Lund); Live video stream at www.GoViks.com.

The first meeting between No. 9 Portland State and Northern Colorado since 2012 has huge implications for both teams.

The Vikings, of course, are right in the thick of the Big Sky championship race with Eastern Washington and Southern Utah, both of whom are 5-0 in the league.

Northern Colorado, meanwhile, is hunting for a rare win over a Top 10 FCS ranked team. Ernest Collins is just 13-40 in five seasons as the Bears head coach and a victory over the Vikings would certainly add some zest on the recruiting trail as he continues rebuilding the UNC program.

“Bruce Barnum has done a great job after taking over that program and it’s showing,” Collins said. “Looking at their roster, it looks like they have a connection in Utah with BYU. They have done a good job in recruiting. It was about getting it together on the field.”

The explosive Portland State offense is second in the Big Sky in scoring (38.0 points per game) and rushing offense (268.5 ypg), and fifth in total offense (433.0 ypg). Northern Colorado could be vulnerable to the run as they rank just eighth in the Big Sky in rushing defense (204.0 ypg).

“Their offense is a carryover from what they were doing before,” Collins said. “He has running and the defense is playing lights out. Your hats go off to Bruce. He is running his version of the zone read game and off of that throwing the ball down the field and running fly sweeps. The quarterback is like another running back when he has the football.”

Alex Kuresa has thrown the fewest passes of any Big Sky quarterback ranked in the Top 10 in average passing yards (72-129, 159.4 ypg), but the junior college transfer has made the most of his opportunities as he currently ranks fourth in passing efficiency with 10 touchdown passes compared to three interceptions.

In short, he is not making many mistakes in the passing game along with being a major contributor in the ground game next to David Jones (100.4 ypg).

“Their quarterback is a mobile guy,” Collins said. “He has had 150 yards rushing in a game this season. And he can throw it deep. So, he is pretty good in that he can read it, keep it and pull it at the right time and knows when to get the ball downfield. We know we have our work cut out for us. That’s why you come to work every day.”

The last two Big Sky Offensive Players of the Week earned their honors after huge performances against Northern Colorado (Eastern Washington WE Cooper Kupp and NSU QB Case Cookus). Will a Portland State offensive player make it three in a row?

“We don’t want to have another one of those,” Collins said. “That’s the thing with this conference. You never have a down week. You are always going to face a great player somewhere, somehow.”

Northern Colorado’s statistical leaders on offense are both freshmen – quarterback Jacob Knipp (111-for-189, 1,321 yards for 9 touchdowns and 6 INT) and running back Trae Riek (462 total yards; 127 rushing yards on just 17 attempts with two touchdown runs of 36 and 22 yards in last week’s loss at NAU).

“For us on offense, it’s about leverage,” Collins said. “We have to use the opponents’ speed and quickness against them. Get them going in one direction and go in the other direction. It’s about assignment football and understanding the leverage of where you have to block and our running backs picking and choosing those holes and hitting them. Then we have to give Jacob some time back there to throw the ball.”

Portland State’s defense could be one of the most improved units in the Big Sky Conference. A year ago, the Vikings were near the bottom of the Big Sky rankings in total defense.

This year? PSU is second in the Big Sky in total defense (342.6 ypg) as the Vikings are allowing 100.6 fewer yards per game and 1.2 yards less per play.

Yes, that’s a lot of yards.

“They’re playing downhill football (on defense),” Collins said. “They’re running a little version of Cover 2. They have the Mike (middle linebacker) sitting back there and he’s coming downhill. They have a couple of physical corners that will get in your face. You have to get off the press.

“They give you a variety of looks. They have enough veteran guys in that group that have played some big-time football and came down. They’re jelling at the right time. You look at their roster and you see a lot of seniors and transfers. Barny has changed the mindset.”

NOTES:

— UNC junior safety Taylor Risner is the Bears’ defensive leader with 78 tackles (24 solo, 54 assisted) on the season, which ranks him 5th in the Big Sky. If Risner should reach the century mark in tackles, he would be just the third UNC player to do so and the first since 2011 when Clarence Bumpas recorded 145 stops.

— This is the first time in Collins’ tenure that one of his teams has been at least .500 this late in the season. His best record of 5-6 came in 2012, but the team was 2-6 heading into week 9.

— UNC junior defensive end Mikhail Dubose has 5.0 sacks on the season, ranking him third overall in the Big Sky conference. He also has 10.0 tackles for a loss this year, which is 5.0 tackles away from the UNC D1 program record.

— Collins, the Northern Colorado single-season school record holder for punt return yards and a former assistant coach for the Bears, was named head football coach on Dec. 28, 2010. Previously, he served as the head coach at Alcorn State (2009-10; associate head coach in 2008), one year on the Central Florida staff (2007) and four years as special teams and cornerbacks coach at Kansas (2003-06).

Scott Hood

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