Four consecutive winning seasons makes Western Oregon one of the best kept college football secrets in the Pacific Northwest.
The Wolves, playing their 2014 season opener Saturday night at Hillsboro Stadium against Portland State (7:15 p.m. kickoff), are coming off a 7-4 season and a third straight second place finish in the Division II Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
Western Oregon received one first place vote and were picked third in the GNAC preseason coaches poll. WOU received 27 points, one less than Central Washington.
If nothing else, WOU has been consistent, which has been a hallmark of the Wolves program under 10th year head coach Arne Ferguson (58-39 in nine seasons), who also serves as defensive coordinator. WOU returns six starters on both sides of the ball.
Portland State and Western Oregon, located in Monmouth, are meeting for the first time in six years and only the second time since 1977. PSU has won the last six games in the series dating back to 1962. WOU was known as the Oregon College of Education in the first 20 meetings.
WOU’s last win over Portland State came in 1961. The two teams met yearly between 1947-64 when both schools were members of the old Oregon Collegiate Conference, but the rivalry ended in 1964 and Saturday’s contest marks just the fourth between the schools in the last 40 seasons.
Portland State is 13-0 against lower division programs (Div. II, III and NAIA) since returning to the FCS level and joining the Big Sky Conference in 1996. After watching the PSU-Oregon State film, Ferguson realizes pulling off an upset at PSU’s “home away from home” will be difficult.
“They were right in it,” Ferguson said. “We expect (to play) a very good football team on Saturday night).”
Western Oregon is 1-13 versus Big Sky Conference opponents since joining the NCAA in 2001, 1-17 against FCS opponents. The lone win was a 16-3 victory over Southern Utah in 2001. WOU is facing an opponent from the state of Oregon for just the second time in the past four years. The last game against an Oregon-based school was a 24-23 win at Southern Oregon in 2010.
Wolves senior quarterback Ryan Bergman is the top returning signal caller in the GNAC. Last year, he led the conference in passing yards (3,225) and touchdown passes (27) while completing 54.5 percent of his throws (232-of-425), earning first team all-league honors in the process.
Bergman directs an offense returning three all-conference players that led the GNAC in scoring (30.4 ppg) and ranked second in total offense (412.2 yards per game). But the Wolves also committed 30 turnovers in 11 games.
“Ryan Bergman did a very nice job last season and kept on getting better as the year went on,” said Ferguson, whose team has dropped three straight season-openers. “We had good point production and accuracy. We feel he even got better through spring ball and two-a-days (in August).”
Western Oregon offensive coordinator Brian Harris is a Portland State alumnus (graduated in 2000) and former player for the Vikings (1994-98).
“He does a very good job of maximizing our talent and developing quarterbacks,” Ferguson said. “Both he and our quarterbacks coach Evan Mozzochi have done a good job with Bergman in developing his skills in terms of his reads and throwing the deep ball and extending plays with his athletic ability.”
Western Oregon relies extensively on the spread and read option, but Ferguson described the Wolves offense as “multiple” with an array of formations and lots of motion.
“We work hard to get the matchups to allow our players to be successful,” Ferguson said.
Senior wide receiver Tyrell Williams (6-4, 215 pounds) is one of the fastest players in the GNAC, tying a conference record last spring in the 200 meters (21.32), and caught 49 passes for 849 yards and six touchdowns to earn first team GNAC honors in 2013.
“His camp was the best he ever had,” Ferguson said. “He has gotten stronger and he’s worked hard on developing his routes. But we know Portland State’s secondary is very good.”
Running back Joe Harris, a junior from Coquille, OR, rushed for 672 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore last season, earning second-team All GNAC honors. Senior Nathaniel Penaranda is the second running back listed on the depth chart, while senior Dylan Simkins should have a vital role in the ground game as well.
“Joe has good speed and vision,” Ferguson said. “We expect him to be better this year than he was last year. Like the Big Sky, our conference is about scoring points, so we try to maximize two or three running backs through the course of a game.”
Western Oregon returns six starters from a defense that allowed 389 yards and 26.1 points per game in 2013. The unit is led by GNAC Defensive Lineman of the Year Kraig Akins and first team all-league outside linebacker Shane Kuenzi.
“We need to get better defensively, especially our secondary and linebacker corps,” Ferguson said. “They need to make a lot of improvement. We’re trying to develop some consistency in the (secondary). We know the speed of Portland State will test them and push them. The FCS has extra speed and that wears on you in the third and fourth quarter. Our guys will need to show speed down after down.”
Watching the video of the PSU-Oregon State game, Ferguson didn’t require much time to figure out the Wolves must find a way to contain Vikings quarterback Paris Penn.
“The kid can really run and makes quick decisions,” Ferguson said. “Obviously, they have speed at quarterback. Their quarterbacks are extremely productive in what they do. We’ll have our hands full with both quarterbacks.”
Akins, a 275-pound senior from Springfield, led the GNAC in tackles for losses last season with 16 for 72 yards, and also ranked eighth in total tackles with 70 in 11 games. Additionally, he collected eight sacks and forced four fumbles.
“Akins is a 275-pound guy that runs well,” Ferguson said. “We expect him to have a better season and have an opportunity to make a lot of plays. If you look at our league stats (from 2013), he was in the Top 10 in just about everything except interceptions.”
Kuenzi finished fifth in the GNAC in tackles (105), averaging 9.5 per contest. He should be helped at linebacker this season by Doug Parrish, a transfer from San Jose State.
“Shane is a very productive player on defense and special teams,” Ferguson said.