Watching running back Nate Tago run with the football as a freshman last year, Portland State head coach Nigel Burton figured it was only a matter of time before he experienced a breakout performance.
Finally, that long-awaited game happened last week when Tago amassed 106 yards on 26 yards with zero negative yards in PSU’s 23-14 victory over UC Davis at Providence Park.
Not coincidentally, the 5-foot-11 Tago was mostly healthy for the first time since the start of preseason camp in early August, meaning his first career 100-yard rushing game may have offered a tantalizing glimpse into the future.
“He showed what he was capable of doing last year when he played as a true freshman,” Burton said earlier this week on the Big Sky coaches teleconference. “He suffered a pretty significant injury in fall camp and because of the schedule we had starting off, we had to be careful with him. The Big Sky is more important to us than those first four games.
“He’s still not 100 percent, but he was very good for us.”
After rushing for 216 yards and three touchdowns on 35 carries (6.2 yards per carry) in short stints as a promising freshman a year ago, Tago envisioned becoming one of PSU’s featured backs this season, especially in the wake of D.J. Adams’ departure.
But a painful quad contusion that prevented him from bending his legs hampered him for most of preseason camp, forced him to miss the season opener at Oregon State and limited him to 13 carries over the next three games (Western Oregon, Wash. State, Cal Poly) before erupting against UC Davis.
“It has been pretty frustrating,” Tago told Viking Tales. “I started out with a pretty good injury that kept me out for four or five weeks of fall camp. I felt good enough to play in the opening game, but I knew I wasn’t 100 percent, so we decided not to push it.
“The next couple of weeks, it plateaued and felt the same, and still gave me some pain. I was wondering if it would ever go away or if it would just hinder me the whole season.”
Happily, the pain began to subside a couple of weeks ago , which allowed Tago to practice at full speed. Offensive coordinator Bruce Barnum noticed, and finally got the chance to unleash Tago last Saturday.
“In one week, it started feeling a lot better,” said Tago, who sustained the quad injury on the second day of camp. “I started getting more explosion. After Cal Poly (during the bye week) is when I felt my best. In the game, you could see I was pretty much back to normal.
“From now on, I’m expecting that and probably a little bit more. I need to get a little more stamina, so I don’t have to come out and I can keep pounding it into the end zone.”
Missing so much time made his career-best outing against UC Davis very gratifying, Tago said. His previous career highs in rushes (8 vs. Eastern Oregon and UC Davis in 2013) and yards (64 vs. Weber State) occurred in 2013 before he tore his labrum at Idaho State and missed the final two games.
Hence, the quad injury suffered in early August marked Tago’s second major physical setback in nine months.
“It felt nice to finally get back into the groove and get the mojo back,” Tago said. “It felt right. Those four weeks, I was just sitting on the sidelines thinking, ‘I could be really helping my team out right now.’ But the injury set me back. Being out there on the field with my boys felt a lot better.”
Interestingly, his longest carry against UC Davis was 16 yards on two occasions, so his night was chock full of four and five yard runs, and lots of physical punishment from the rugged UC Davis defense.
“The next morning, I felt pretty sore, but if that’s how the team needs me to run, I’m going to do it,” Tago said. “I’ll take the three or four yards. I don’t need long runs all the time. It would be nice, but I’m just putting my work in for the team.”
Tago prides himself on being labeled a ‘balanced’ running back, as much at ease with catching passes out of the backfield as he is running between the tackles or accelerating to the outside.
His 106 yards rushing against UC Davis made Tago, a native of Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., the fourth different running back to lead the Vikings in rushing, an indication of PSU’s depth in the offensive backfield.
Besides Tago, senior Shaq Richard demonstrated his prowess as well with 93 yards on 16 carries, including a 35-yard scamper. Tago and Richard combined for 199 yard on 42 rushing attempts. In all, PSU ran the ball an astounding 57 times for 254 yards.
“All of them are able and ready to play and all of them are prepared to play, so it’s next man up,” Tago said. “If one of us goes down, I have complete faith in every single one of them. I thought we put on a pretty good performance. We gained a little more confidence in our running game, which was a little shaky earlier in the year. But we got some of it back and now we look to keep on pushing forward.”
Tago and the rest of the Portland State running backs – and quarterback Kieran McDonagh – face a tough test on Saturday trying to run effectively against a North Dakota unit leading the Big Sky in rushing defense (125.3 ypg). UND is allowing just 2.9 yards per rush, by far the lowest figure in the Big Sky (next closest team is 3.6 yards per rush), and has surrendered just six rushing touchdowns in six games, four in the last five games.
“I know they’re big and physical, but we’ve been preparing this week,” Tago said. “I think we’re going to get the job done. We’re just as physical as they are. We’re ready too.”
Besides serving as a running back, Tago also contributes to the Vikings cause as the team’s primary kickoff returner. So far this season, he is averaging 19.2 yards per carry on 12 returns. Last year, he returned 21 kickoffs.
Tago relishes his dual role.
“Anytime I get the ball in my hands is a great opportunity to do something for my team, so I like being the kick returner a lot,” said Tago, who was recruited by multiple Big Sky schools out of Tesoro High School, where he was an All-League, All-County and All-CIF performer and team MVP.
“My dad had a big influence on my decision (where to go to school) because he really liked the coaches here and so did I,” Tago added “He believed this place was the best for me as far as opportunities in football and later in life for jobs. I loved the vibe when I got here on my visit. The city is nice. It felt like a place where I could live for four years.”