Because of Portland State’s schedule, offensive coordinator Bruce Barnum had to scheme and figure out ways to move the ball against Pac-12 defenses in two of the Vikings’ first three games this season.
When you deal daily with the scholarship limitations at a FCS-level school, that’s not always fun.
The Vikings’ offense gained a total of 576 yards and scored four touchdowns (a fifth scored on a Pick-6 by the PSU defense) in the matchups against the Oregon State and Washington State defenses.
PSU persevered, and with nine straight games against Big Sky Conference opponents left on the schedule (Saturday’s 6:05 p.m. contest at Cal Poly is a nonconference affair despite both teams having BSC affiliation), the time is now to put all the pieces together.
For sure, go time has arrived for the Portland State offense.
“This week, I think you’ll probably see who we’re going to be for the rest of the season,” Barnum told Viking Tales on Tuesday. “I’m trying to figure out what we have in the coffer and who I can rely on, though I trust them all. We have some guys healthy, so I’m excited for this week.”
Contests against Pac-12 schools bring Portland State a large paycheck and a high degree of visibility locally, regionally and nationally, but typically the talent level of the defenses there are above what the Vikings face on a weekly basis in the Big Sky Conference.
Thus, any matchup with a Big Sky opponent offers a better barometer of where the Vikings stand at that particular moment.
“The Pac-12 games are fun for the kids and if you’re perfect and don’t turn the football over, you might have a chance in the fourth quarter,” Barnum said. “We got through that. We tried with hopefully a little bit of luck to pick one of them off, but we didn’t. Kudos to Oregon State and Washington State.
“After this week, we’re playing for the Big Sky. All the teams are equal scholarships. We’re ready to go, so let’s do it.”
Junior quarterback Kieran McDonagh tuned up for the Big Sky portion of PSU’s schedule with one of the best performances of his career in last Saturday’s 59-21 loss at Washington State. He established career highs in pass attempts (51) and completions (31) while throwing for 269 yards and one touchdown.
McDonagh moved into Portland State’s Top 10 passing lists for most career yards (4,610), completions (339), touchdown passes (32) and total offense (5,406).
“We always knew he could spin it,” Barnum said. “He had a heckuva game. He still has some thing he needs to work on and he’ll be even better if I can get him to stay in the pocket in certain situations.”
Washington State is renowned for its aggressive fire zone blitz and the Cougars attacked the PSU backfield relentlessly all night along in an attempt to rattle the quarterback. Sometimes, it worked. In the second quarter, when the Vikings had moved to the WSU 27, McDonagh’s rushed throw was intercepted in the corner of the end zone by a WSU defensive back.
“No quarterback is worth anything if they start looking at the rush,” Barnum said. “He started peeking, which he has never done. They came after us. Washington State ran that fire zone blitz and we would put a hat on them, but they would slip off. So, he started to peek at the rush on third down and that hurt him. He knows it. That pick in the end zone was the cause of that. He cleaned it up and came out in the third quarter and got after it.”
Looking for ways to make the most of Paris Penn’s speed and superb multi-dimensional skills, Barnum lined up the sophomore at quarterback, running back and wide receiver during the stretch he was involved in the game.
“It was just different ways to get him into mismatches and get him touches,” Barnum said.
Unfortunately, Penn was forced to the sidelines after being jolted in the knee and the decision was made not to jeopardize further injury. So he sat.
“Paris got dinged up with his knee, so that changed things a little bit,” Barnum said. “We had a two quarterback package I was going to use for the majority of that game and try to get Paris the ball in different situations. He had a couple of drops early and that frustrated him. Wide receiver is a new position for him. But I know he can catch because he caught them all week.
“But he dropped a couple there. I think it was a little bit of the bright lights. The college football fanfare maybe caught up to him. But just when I was expecting him to settle down, the next thing I know he was hurt. So I just shut him down and told him to put some ice on it and get ready for next week.”
Penn practiced Sunday and Tuesday (Monday is the Vikings’ mandatory day off) and was able to move around normally, Barnum said.
“It’s just a little sore,” Barnum said.
Without Penn, Portland State ran a higher tempo offense than normal in the third starter in an effort to keep the Washington State defense off-balance. The strategy paid dividends early as the Vikings put together third quarter touchdown drives of 85 and 71 yards to cut WSU’s lead to 28-14. However, the Cougars adjusted defensively and the Vikings punted on four of their next five possessions.
Besides McDonagh’s big numbers, another positive for the PSU offense was the performance of senior receiver Alex Toureen, who had career highs in receptions (7) and receiving yards (100), and caught a 24-yard TD pass from McDonagh.
His previous career highs were three receptions and 52 yards. Toureen, currently in his fourth year in the program, is second on the Vikings with 11 receptions, a new single season high, for 151 yards and one touchdown. Only Kasey Closs has more receptions (18) and receiving yards (151) for PSU.
“(Wide receivers coach) Steve Cooper has been harping on that kid since he got here,” Barnum said. “When you watch his high school film (Cottage Grove HS), you say, ‘Holy Toledo.’ He got here and there was always something, it seemed. He had a nick here, a knee, a hip and there was other stuff.
“He has matured. He had a great week of practice and he came out and he looked like he was supposed to be there. He grew up in the system and he got healthy.”
Toureen’s emergence gives Portland State three solid receivers – Closs and Thomas Carter (8 receptions in 2014) – heading into Big Sky Conference play with senior Roston Tatum (2 receptions in 2014), junior David Jones (finally healthy) and sophomore Darnell Adams (6 receptions in 2014) accompanying them.