Turnover battle could tell the tale

By Scott Hood  Dec 3 2015, 10:38 pm — Leave a comment
Portland State quarterback Alex Kuresa (right) vs. Montana.  (Steve Dipaola for the Columbian)

When Southern Utah invaded the Rose City three weeks ago, they possessed the top turnover margin in the country at plus-21. Portland State was pretty good in that category as well.

The Vikings pulled out a 24-23 win over the Thunderbirds in large part because they forced three turnovers from SUU without committing any miscues themselves.

In short, the team making the fewest mistakes won the game.

Portland State enters Saturday’s second round FCS home playoff game against Northern Iowa (7 p.m.) of the Missouri Valley Conference with a plus-16 turnover margin to rank second in the nation. UNI is not far behind, though, owning a plus-12 turnover margin to rank seventh in the nation.

The Vikings have forced 28 turnovers, while the Panthers have forced 27.

Translation: the team that makes the fewest mistakes will likely win the game.

Hardly earth-shattering, for sure, but when two worthy foes are both deep in the black when it comes to turnovers, just one or two miscues can spell the difference in a football game.

“Every game in this (the playoffs) is going to come down to who is making mistakes and who’s not, and who is taking care of the football,” Portland State coach Bruce Barnum said recently. “We will have to keep the edge.”

The Vikings are hosting their first playoff game since Nov. 18, 1995 when the program still competed at the Division II level.

“It’s a very special moment for us to soak in with this being our first (home) playoff game in almost 20 years,” Jones said this week. “But we can’t fall short of our ultimate goal, and that is to win a national championship. Our heads are all in the playbook and we’re trying to make sure we play our best on Saturday.”

Portland State and Northern Iowa are similar to some aspects – they both like to run the football, both have elite dual threat quarterbacks and both play rugged defense with ball-hawking safeties in the secondary.

“What jumps out to me is their physicality and their speed,” Portland State running back David Jones said. “They fly to the football and they gang tackle. We’re going to try to put our best foot forward and come at them. It’s a special defense.”

Portland State free safety Patrick Onwuasor leads the nation with nine interceptions, while UNI free safety Deiondre Hall ranks eighth with six interceptions. Onwuasor is a National Defensive Player of the Year finalist. Hall was the Missouri Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year.

Hence, neither team will be throwing the ball into the middle one-third of the field very much.

MISCELLANEOUS

— Saturday’s contest will be available on ESPN3.com and the WatchESPN app. Locally, it airs in Portland on 1190 KEX and www.1190kex.com. Live stats can be found at www.GoViks.com.

— Jones on PSU’s initial reaction to Alex Kuresa when he arrived on campus: “His leadership is very special on and off the field. Everybody agreed he should be our captain, especially with him being our quarterback. He’s the captain of the ship. He keeps our offense going.”

— Jones said the Portland State offense this season is very similar from last season.

— What’s the biggest difference between last year and this year? Jones said the Vikings are doing a much better job finishing games now. “Last year, we lost some games by a field goal. We had to push through those moments and we’ve been very successful this year.”

— PSU and UNI have two common opponents – Eastern Washington and Cal Poly. Both PSU and UNI went 2-0 in those games. The aggregate scores? PSU 72-66, UNI 72-55. Slimmest of margins.

— Biggest difference between the programs: Playoff experience. Northern Iowa is making its 18th appearance in the FCS Playoffs while Portland State is making only its second. Will it matter on Saturday?

SECOND ROUND GAMES (Dec. 5)
The Citadel at #8 Charleston Southern, 10 a.m.
Colgate at #5 James Madison, 10 a.m.
William & Mary at #7 Richmond. 9 a.m.
Chattanooga at #1 Jacksonville St., 11 a.m.
Western Illinois at #2 Illinois St., 11 a.m.
Montana at #3 North Dakota St., 12:30 p.m.
Sam Houston State at #4 McNeese St., 4 p.m.
Northern Iowa at #6 Portland St., 7 p.m.
(All Times Pacific)

Scott Hood

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