It’s appropriate Saturday’s critically important regular season finale between Portland State and Eastern Washington in Cheney, WA takes place on the three-month anniversary of arguably Bruce Barnum’s most important decision as Vikings head coach since training camp began.
On August 21, Barnum narrowed the four-man quarterback competition to two – Alex Kuresa and Paris Penn. A week or so later, Kuresa was named the starter and he has remained in that role for the first 10 games of the season.
Kuresa, a JUCO transfer from Snow College, has been everything Barnum hoped for and more, completing 57.8 percent of his passes for 1,728 yards and 14 touchdowns along with 651 rushing yards, second most on the Vikings behind David Jones (928 yards).
“Alex is a winner,” Barnum said earlier this week. “His attitude, everything about him. He got out of some scraps last week. Defenders will have him dialed up in their sights and he escapes and gains 10 yards. I don’t know how he does that stuff. But I’m glad he is on our team.”
But Kuresa’s most important contribution might be his significant contribution towards Portland State’s remarkable improvement in turnover margin. A year ago, PSU finished last in the Big Sky with a dismal minus-12 turnover margin (26-14). This year? Polar opposite.
The Vikings enter Saturday’s Dam Cup showdown at Eastern Washington with a plus-15 turnover margin (9-24). One of the biggest differences over last season? PSU quarterbacks threw 17 interceptions in 2014. This year, only four. Even fumbles lost are way down, going from nine in 2014 to five this season.
“Alex isn’t turning the ball over, knock on wood,” Barnum said this week. “That’s why we’ve had a chance this year. Turnovers last year were a mess, but we’re not doing that this year.”
Last year, Portland State averaged one interception every 24.9 passes. This year, one INT every 47.8 pass attempts. In other words, even though Portland State has attempted fewer passes compared to last season, the frequency of interceptions has dwindled.
Defensively, Portland State has 16 interceptions in 10 games, led by Patrick Onwuasor’s Big Sky-leading nine picks. A year ago, PSU had six INT in 12 games.
Last weekend’s victory over Southern Utah exemplified PSU’s season. The Thunderbirds came into the game as the Big Sky’s leader in turnover margin (+21), but the Vikings committed zero turnovers and forced three from SUU for a plus-3 margin.
“(Turnovers) is why we won the game last week against the team that led the country in turnover margin,” Barnum said. “They had three, we had zero.”
Eastern Washington has a minus-6 turnover margin, which partly explains their 6-4 overall record and they are in a ‘must win’ situation to keep their FCS playoff hopes alive heading into Saturday’s contest.
“They need to beat us to have a chance,” Barnum said. “That game has always felt like a rivalry. It doesn’t matter what the records are. It’s always a close football game. They expect to win. I know it’s going to be a battle. Beau Baldwin is one of the premier coaches in this conference. He has won the national championship.”
Eastern Washington is the defending Big Sky champion has won outright or shared the conference title four of the last five seasons.
Saturday’s game marks the 26th consecutive season Portland State and Eastern Washington have met on the gridiron.
BIG SKY SCHEDULE (Nov. 21)
Abilene Christian at Northern Colorado, noon
Montana at Montana State, noon
Idaho State at Weber State, 1 p.m.
Portland State at Eastern Washington. 2:05 p.m.
Northern Arizona at Southern Utah, 3 p.m.
UC Davis at Sacramento State, 2:30 p.m. PT
North Dakota at Cal Poly, 6:05 p.m.
BIG SKY STANDINGS
Southern Utah 6-1 (7-3)
Portland State 5-2 (8-2)
Northern Arizona 5-2 (7-3)
Eastern Washington 5-2 (6-4)
Montana 5-2 (6-4)
North Dakota 4-3 (6-4)
Weber State 4-3 (5-5)
Montana State 3-4 (5-5)
Cal Poly 3-4 (4-6)
Northern Colorado 3-5 (5-5)
Idaho State 1-6 (2-8)
Sacramento State 1-6 (2-8)
UC Davis 1-6 (1-9)
— PSU VIKINGS (@PSU_VIKINGS) November 17, 2015