Editor’s note: This is one installment of a 13-part series of capsules on the 2018 prospects, strengths and weaknesses of each football team in the Big Sky Conference. League play begins in the BSC on Saturday.
PORTLAND STATE VIKINGS
Record last season: 0-11, 0-8 in Big Sky play
2018 non-conference record: 1-2
Big question: Can they get headed in the right direction?
It’s never good when a close loss is the highlight of a season, but that was the case in 2017 for the Vikings, who nearly beat Oregon State in their second game but would go on to finish 0-11. It was an equal-opportunity failure. Portland State was last or next-to-last in the Big Sky in (takes deep breath) scoring offense, scoring defense, total defense, rush defense, passing efficiency, punting, field goal kicking, sacks, turnover margin and red-zone offense.
Head coach Bruce Barnum faced a mutiny and barely managed to survive the season. The offensive coordinator, Scott Cooper, left for Nebraska, and the defensive coordinator, Malik Robertson, was fired the day the season ended. With a new staff, can Barnum — now in the fourth year of a five-year extension — and the returning players put the past behind them, even if it doesn’t necessarily show on the field? The Viks were picked last in the conference again in the preseason polls, so even a slight improvement could be encouraging.
The fall from grace has been stark. In Barnum’s first season at the helm in 2015, PSU won a school-record nine games and qualified for the FCS playoffs for the second time ever. PSU won two games in 2016 and went winless last season.
Offensive Player to Watch: Davis Alexander, QB
The Vikings went through three quarterbacks last year, with only Alexander completing his passes at a rate greater than 50 percent, which might help explain their struggles. Either way, the true freshman Alexander played in five games, started the last three, and brought some relative stability to the team at the end of the season, throwing for over 300 yards in each of his starts with five touchdowns and three interceptions. The strong-armed quarterback then beat out his classmate Jalani Eason and sophomore transfer Danny Velazquez for the starting job in the fall. There’s a low bar to clear after a winless season, but if Alexander can build on his strong finish from last year, it should give Portland State stability at the most important position on the field.
Portland State snapped its 15-game losing streak with a 63-14 win over College of Idaho in Portland on Saturday. Alexander completed 6-of-11 passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 77 yards and a score. Eason competed 5-of-6 passes for 134 yards and a score while running for 83 more yards. PSU piled up 657 yards against its NAIA Frontier Conference opponent.
Also keep an eye out for Charlie Taumoepeau, Portland State’s junior tight end, to continue serving as the favorite target for whoever is playing quarterback. The All-Big Sky selection last season as a sophomore was recognized as a preseason first-team All-American by FCS STATS. He had five catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns in PSU’s 62-14 loss at Oregon. Taumoepeau has nine catches for 326 yards and five touchdowns this season, accounting for nearly half of Portland State’s 706 total passing yards and nearly half of PSU’s 12 team touchdowns.
Defensive Player to Watch: Kasun Jackett, LB
As you might have guessed from the stats above, the Portland State defense was a mess last year. The run defense was particularly bad, as the Vikings gave up almost 50 yards a game more than anyone else in the conference besides Northern Colorado. Jackett managed to make 91 tackles in the middle of the chaos, and if the defense is to take a step forward, he’ll have to lead the way. The problem is that the defense was so bad last year, he might have to do too much. Can he stay good against the run and get into the backfield to help a defensive line that recorded seven sacks all of last year? The Vikings have a decent returning safety pair in Braxton Winterton and Artuz Manning, but beyond that, Jackett shouldn’t expect much help.
The struggles were even more baffling considering that defensive end Davond Dade along with cornerbacks Chris Seisay and Donovan Olumba all signed NFL free agent contracts. Olumba is currently signed to the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad.
Through three games this season, Jackett is fifth on the Vikings with 12 tackles. Houston Barnes leads the team with 25 tackles. PSU is giving up 48.3 points per game so far, including 72 points to Nevada and 62 to the Ducks in back-to-back FBS losses.
Senior strong safety Artuz Manning: “Selfishness was the missing link,” Manning said. “A lot of people had shots at going to the NFL…they all knew that. That was the issue. At the end of the day, it’s like, ‘Well, I’m doing this, you’re not doing this but I’m doing this so I’m getting paid,” but that’s not the right attitude. On our defense, when you think like that, everything else goes downhill.”
Conference opener: Montana State at Portland State, Hillsboro Stadium, 2 p.m. PST