The season is just reaching its midpoint but it’s hard to say anyone in college has exceeded expectations more than Portland State already.
The Viking football program has been awash in uncertainty for most of the last year. Former head coach Nigel Burton’s inability to coexist with PSU administration caused for a spat in the Portland media (see here).
Last year, the administration demanded the football program become financially independent and operate without a deficit by the end of the year. In August of 2014, athletic director Torre Chisholm stepped down. In November, interim athletic director Val Cleary fired Burton. Bruce Barnum, Burton’s offensive coordinator during his five seasons at the helm was promoted to interim status. The administration told him his contract would expire on December 31 of 2015.
The Vikings entered the season with four unproductive veteran quarterbacks on their roster. The defense featured several players brimming with potential and a few more with FBS credentials. But the Vikings surrendered 34 points per game last season and posted just a 21-36 record under Burton overall.
Many wondered if football would last in the City of Roses beyond this season.
If the Portland State players have anything to do with it, football is here to stay at PSU. The Vikings pulled one of the biggest upsets in college football history according to odds makers when PSU went to Pullman and defeated Washington State 24-17. The Viks entered the game against the Pac 12 Cougars as 34-point underdogs.
To prove they weren’t just a one-hit wonder, the Vikings went to Pocatello, Idaho and whipped Idaho State 34-17. The Bengals entered the season ranked 23rd in the FCS following last season’s 8-4 campaign. ISU was picked to finish fourth in the Big Sky. The Vikings were picked to finish 12th.
PSU kept it rolling with a 31-0 shutout of Division II Western Oregon, an in-state rival that lost by a touchdown, 42-35, at PSU last season. The Vikings had their first setback with a 19-16 slugfest loss to North Dakota. But last week, Portland State bounced back in resounding fashion. The Vikings went to Denton, Texas and destroyed North Texas. The 66-7 victory was the largest by an FCS team over an FBS program, breaking a record set in 1981. The contest netted PSU $450,000 and resulted in the firing of UNT head coach Dan McCarney.
Much of the difference seems to be Barnum. The Vikings returned more than 60 lettermen off last season’s squad. Portland State is winning with ball control, defense and toughness, a far cry from the Division II glory days when Mouse Davis and Pokey Allen were helping change the landscape of college football with their run-and-shoot offense.
“Coach Barnum is unlike any coach I’ve ever played for,” PSU senior cornerback Aaron Sibley said in August. “He makes it fun. He’s very unorthodox. He always likes to have a good time. He keeps the mood light so everything is not tense.”
Despite Portland State’s 4-1 start, the Vikings now face a three-week stretch that will define their season and affirm if they are contenders or pretenders. On Saturday, Portland State hosts No. 16 Montana State for the first time since 2011. The Bobcats were the preseason favorites to win the Big Sky. The following week, PSU faces a dangerous Cal Poly team that’s 2-4 record is more indicative of its strength of schedule that its struggles. On October 31, traditional Big Sky power Montana comes to Portland for the first time since 2010.
PSU’s November schedule includes a November 7 game in Greeley against Northern Colorado, a November 14 game in Portland against upstart Southern Utah and a season finale against designated Big Sky rival Eastern Washington in Cheney.
Location: Portland, Oregon
Founded: 1946. Oregon’s largest school is the only public university in the state located in a major metropolitan area.
Enrollment: The commuter school has 28,241 students and a $63.4 million endowment.
Stadium: Jeld-Wen Field. Formerly known as Multnomah Field when it first opened in 1893, the off-campus facility holds 22,000 fans and is also home to the Portland Timbers, the city’s Major League Soccer club. PSU averaged 4,583 fans per game last season.
THE TEAM (2-6 in the Big Sky, 3-9 overall in 2014)
The Coach: Bruce Barnum, first season at Portland State. Barnum has served as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator for the last five seasons under Nigel Burton, who was fired in the off-season. Barnum has coached in the Big Sky for all but three seasons since 1998. He served as the offensive coordinator at Idaho State from 2001-2006.
Alex Kuresa, quarterback, 6-0, 190, junior — Coming into the season, Portland State had a handful of options at quarterback and Kuresa, a transfer from Snow Junior College, seemed like the least likely. Portland State returned Kieran McDonagh for his senior season, Paris Penn for his junior year and Josh Kraght fresh off a promising freshman campaign.
McDonagh was one of the best freshmen in the country in 2012. He hasn’t been able to find a groove since. In 2013, he lost his starting spot with three games left to Penn, a shifty, athletic dual-threat. Last season, Kraught started in a 29-22 loss at Montana State and held the job for the rest of the season.
In the off-season, Barnum through open the competition. He called Kuresa “a dude in my mind” and mentioned he liked the former BYU wide receiver’s ability to create with his feet.
Kuresa ended up winning the job. Penn has since been moved to “utility QB”, a position created by Barnum to accentuate the skill of one of the team’s best athletes. Kraght has been moved to wide receiver. McDonagh has played sparingly.
Kuresa has thrown just 78 passes in five games, completing 53.8 percent of his attempts. He is throwing for 141 yards per game and has five touchdowns compared to just one interception. He has rushed a team-high 70 times for 287 yards. He is averaging 4.1 yards per carry and 57.4 of PSU’s 238 rushing yards per outing. Kuresa has scored two touchdowns with his feet.
Kyle Smith, offensive tackle, 6-5, 310, junior — Burton consistently touted Smith as one of the most athletic, fluid linemen playing on any front in the league. NFL scouts hope he can fulfill the hype.
The former champion wrestler will enter his third season as a starter after earning honorable mention All-Big Sky honors in 2014.
“He’s got to be dominant,” Barnum said before the season. “He’s got all the off-the-field stuff down. Now he’s just got to work on the basic fundamentals but honestly mostly taking over the game. He hasn’t been a deer in the headlights, but he’s like, ‘This is my job and I’m going to get it done.’ He has to be able to take over a football game and win it from the first snap.”
Smith did not start against North Texas. His status for Saturday’s matchup is unknown. Josh Brown, a 6-foot-5, 270-pound redshirt freshman, started in his place against NTU.
Smith is the anchor on a massive line that features 6-foot-7, 305-pound sophomore left guard Desmoun Thompson, 6-foot-3, 290-pound sophomore center Chad Bach, 6-foot-4, 325-pound junior Cam Keizur and 6-foot-4, 285-pound senior right tackle Mike Davis.
Paris Penn, utility quarterback, 6-1, 215, junior — The versatile athlete showed a flash of his potential last season by rushing for 112 yards and two touchdowns against Oregon State. Multiple shoulder injuries hindered his sophomore season but he still rushed for three touchdowns and threw a TD.
After Kuresa emerged as the starter under center, Barnum created a “utility QB” position for Penn. The Vikings have focused on getting the fluid, fast athlete the ball in space as much as possible.
Penn leads the Vikings with eight catches for 125 yards. He caught a 76-yard touchdown in PSU’s loss to UND, his lone scoring reception of the season and one of five overall for the Vikings. Penn has rushed 25 times for 119 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and has rushed for two touchdowns, including a 38-yard score on an end-around play in PSU’s win over Idaho State. Penn has completed 3-of-5 passes for 41 yards.
David Jones, running back, 6-1, 205, senior — Jones came to Portland State after an all-state career as a quarterback Kent-Meridian High (Washington). He switched to receiver but could never find much of a role in the offense despite his status as Portland State’s fastest offensive player.
In the off-season, Barnum switched Jones to running back and he has thrived. He rushed for 113 yards on 18 carries in PSU’s win over Idaho State. He rushed for 134 yards on nine carries and scored his first two career rushing touchdowns last week against North Texas. He ripped off a 70-yard touchdown run and caught a 60-yard touchdown against the Mean Green. This season, Jones has 336 yards rushing and his 7.5-yard per carry lead the league.
Nate Tago, a 5-foot-11, 205-pound junior who had an offer from Montana State out of high school, has scored five of PSU’s 16 rushing touchdowns on the ground.
Daniel Fusi, defensive tackle, 6-0, 340, senior — Former Miami transfer Junior Alexis, who Barnum calls a “monster of a man”, is the most decorated player up front for the Vikings after earning honorable mention all-league honors last season. But Fusi was the one that turned heads during spring ball.
“Fusi is probably 350 on a light day and 390 on a light day,” Barnum said. “What I saw from that kid this spring, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Where have you been?’ He embraced the change. We only practiced for 90 minutes in the spring. A guy with that body, he thought that was money. And I don’t run them any more for punishment so a guy like Dan Fusi that is 469 pounds thinks I’m God.”
Fusi’s presence playing nose guard has been an essential element for a defense giving up 105.6 rushing yards (2nd in the league) and leading the league in scoring defense (11.4 points per game) and total defense (294.2 yards per game).
Fusi has 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks among his 10.5 total tackles but his ability to eat up blocks has been a key to Portland State’s swarming defensive style.
Aaron Sibley, cornerback, 5-10, 180, senior — With Burton primarily running the defense, Portland State employed press man-to-man coverage on the outside almost primarily. It resulted in countless big plays.
With Sibley, a second-team All-Big Sky selection as a junior, as the anchor, the Vikings plan to diversify their coverage schemes this fall.
“He’s a mature, goal-oriented kid and we are going to ask some different things of him this year,” Barnum said. “You are going to see some more zone out of the mighty Vikings. All that man-to-man lock down stuff, watching people throw deep on us, those days are over.”
This season, Portland State’s secondary has helped the Vikings force 12 turnovers as PSU ranks second in the league with a +9 turnover margin. Sibley has one of the interceptions and three pass breakups as the Vikings are allowing 188.6 passing yards per game. Fellow senior cornerback Xavier Coleman leads the Big Sky with three interceptions.
Patrick Onwuasor, safety, 6-2, 225, senior — Onwuasor was a starter at Arizona in 2012 before getting dismissed from the team and resurfacing at Portland State last off-season.
This season, he has been a ball hawk and a hard hitter in run support. The NFL hopeful has 28 tackles, a tackle for loss and three interceptions thus far this season.
Jeremy Lutali, middle linebacker, 5-11, 230, senior — Barnum said he loves the collective motor of his linebackers. That starts with Lutali. A season ago, Lutali earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors by leading PSU with 86 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss.
This season, Lutali leads the Vikings with 35 total tackles. He had an interception against Idaho State and has 1.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. Lutali leads a linebacker unit that features sophomore John Norcross (20.5 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss) and redshirt freshman A.J. Schlatter (17.5 tackles).
Sadat Sulleyman, defensive end, 6-2, 250, senior — The senior has thrived in the new system after flashing his potential in recent years. Sulleyman already has more tackles for loss (six) this season than he did in his first two seasons at PSU (five).
Sulleyman’s two sacks are tied with Davond Dade for the team lead on a defensive line that rotates heavily. He led Portland State with 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last season.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. Head shots courtesy of Portland State athletics. All Rights Reserved.