It took most of the game to do it, but Portland State finally got Central Washington out of its hair and rung the victory bell with a 43-26 decision over the Division II Wildcats in the Vikings’ 2016 season opener.
The Vikings, ranked 12th nationally in the FCS coaches poll and 17th in the STATS FCS poll, had to come from behind three times and weren’t really out of reach until a deep Wildcat pass went incomplete with four minutes left in the game.
“A quality football team and excellent coaching staff, but they ran out of depth and we outworked them at the end,” said Viking Coach Bruce Barnum of his team’s opponent “As far as the first game out of the chute, we were rusty, but we will take it.”
Two senior veterans arrived on time to pull PSU away from visitors in front of 4,898 fans at Providence Park.
Quarterback Alex Kuresa hit 16 of 26 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for career-high 123 yards, including a 21-yarder with 6:34 left in the game that gave his team a 10-point lead and some badly needed breathing room.
Running back Nate Tago, needed to fill the giant hole in the rushing game left by departed David Jones, responded with a career-high day. The 215-pound Californian carried the ball 24 times for 150 yards and three touchdowns. Those included a 43-yard explosion in the second quarter when the Vikings badly needed some points, and an 8-yarder with 1:03 left in the game that put the final nail in the Central coffin.
Portland State found itself on the opposite side of the role it played in last year’s stunning opening-day victory at Washington State.
This time, the shoe was on the other foot, and it was a size 8. That was the number Wildcat quarterback Justin Lane wore — when the Vikings could reach him. The CWU senior vexed PSU all day and finished with hit 19 of 37 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns; time and again he evaded Portland State blitzes to keep plays alive.
If Central Washington was impressed with Portland State’s high ranking, higher division and home field advantage, the sentiment didn’t make it even as far as the opening kickoff.
The Wildcats were no worse than Portland State’s equal in the first half. They got the first touchdown of the game on the opening drive, matched the Vikings touchdown for touchdown in the first 30 minutes and didn’t trail until there were 13 seconds left in the half.
The difference between the two teams was Central’s two missed extra points.
The Vikings couldn’t lay a glove on Lane, who hit on 10 of 17 passes for a whopping 224 yards — 32 more than Portland State allowed on average over an entire game all last year. Eighty more rushing yards gave CWU over 300 yards for the half to Portland State’s 257.
Lane drove the Wildcats 81 yards in just six plays on the opening drive. He got the last 32 when he rolled to the left and launched one high and deep toward Jesse Zalk in single coverage against PSU’s Xavier Coleman. The ball just cleared Coleman’s hands and Zalk brought it in for first blood just 2 minutes, 10 seconds into the game.
PSU drove it right back to square the game. Kuresa hit 5 of 6 passes to move the Vikings 66 yards in 11 plays. Nate Tago bulled his way in from the 4 yard line to tie the game.
Central had the next scoring opportunity on its next drive, but that disappeared when Portland State’s Davond Dade blocked a 37-yard field goal attempt by Central’s Chavo Camargo.
The Wildcats got the lead back just over two minutes into the second quarter on Quincy Carter’s 16-yard run, then extended it to 19-7 when Lane found Zalk wide open in the middle of the field on a play-action for a 63-yard touchdown that made it 19-7 just 5:09 before halftime.
Portland State rallied to the occasion with two consecutive touchdowns in the last 3:06 of the second quarter. Tago dived into the right side of the line, then popped out to the right sideline and outran everybody for a 43-yard score to bring his team within five points.
Portland State’s defense finally got a piece of Lane on the next CWU possession with a sack by Austin Wolff and forced a short punt that set the Vikings up at the Wildcat 32 with 1:23 left.
Kuresa ate 17 yards of that up with a pass to Josh Kraght that put the ball on the one yard line, then the Vikings got a big break. Kuresa’s pass into the end zone was intercepted with 17 seconds left, but a Wildcat rusher hit the quarterback late on the play and gave PSU new life.
Kuresa cashed it in when he hit tight end Cam Sommer in the back of the end zone with 13 seconds left in the half to give the Vikings a 21-19 lead at the break.
Portland State looked as if it was finally going to take command of the game on its opening drive of the second half. The Vikings moved from their own 45 to the Central 18, but a Paris Penn run was ruled to be a fumble, and Wildcats recovered on their own 13.
They drove 87 yards, with the help of a 15-yard penalty for roughing the punter on fourth down in their own territory.
Lane finished the drive with a 31-yard touchdown pass to elusive Jesse Zalk for a 26-21 lead, which turned out to be Central’ last advantage of the game.
The two teams exchanged punts, then PSU drove for the go-ahead touchdown on an 85-yard march in 11 plays, the last of which was a 4-yard pass from Kuresa to Maximo Espitia on the first play of the fourth quarter.
PSU defenders finally located Lane and Quincy Carter, who ran for 81 yards for Central, and established some control.
Kuresa’s touchdown run, with a terrific downfield block by Trent Riley, gave the Vikings some room. Tago finished the Wildcats off five minutes later.