POCATELLO, Idaho — The Vikings proved they are no fluke, leaving the Bengals left wondering where to turn.
No. 24 Portland State built on the momentum of an upset victory over Washington State of the Pac 12 in its opener by dismantling No. 23 Idaho State in every phase of the game here Saturday. PSU got a kick return for a touchdown on its first touch of the game, harassed ISU quarterback Michael Sanders into four turnovers and ran the ball with authority once it had the lead in a 34-14 victory in front of 7,075 at Holt Arena on Saturday evening.
Portland State defeated a ranked team for the first time since 2008, won a second consecutive game for the first time since 2013 and won on the road for a second consecutive week for the first time since 2011. The Vikings moved to 1-0 in Big Sky Conference play while the Bengals dropped to 0-1 in league, 1-1 overall.
“Honestly, this is hard to describe because since I’ve been here, we haven’t really ever won two games in a row on the road so this feeling in unbelievable,” said Portland State senior captain middle linebacker Jeremy Lutali. “We are playing for each other and that makes it so we all have something to play for.”
A week ago, Portland State forced four turnovers and rushed for 233 yards in notching a 24-17 at WSU, the program’s first ever against a Pac 12 school. Washington State defeated Rutgers of the Big Ten 37-34 on Saturday.
“We are picked to lose every week, pretty much, we are picked to win one game this year so this is huge, but coming back and focusing, that’s what our captains did because coaches can’t do that,” said Portland State interim head coach Bruce Barnum, a longtime assistant who took over after Nigel Burton’s firing last November. “Our five captains took control at practice on Tuesday. Last week was ridiculous. The nation-wide attention Portland State got and the Big Sky Conference was unreal. Our guys remember what happened last year (a 31-13 loss in Portland) and our guys made sure that last week was up on the shelf and we focused on this.”
Idaho State agreed to move the Big Sky Conference opener for each team up two weeks in order to rearrange its bye and in hopes of taking advantage of a team coming off a loss to an FBS opponent. Instead, the Bengals got the red-hot Vikings and were beaten handily.
“They were way more prepared than we were, more mentally tough than we were,” Idaho State fifth-year head coach Mike Kramer said. “We didn’t deserve to win and they did. Period. We didn’t play like we were excited to play at home. We didn’t play tough at home. We didn’t play in all phases of the kicking game the way we need to play.
“We didn’t play well at quarterback. We didn’t play super at receiver. It was a combination of everything. All facets of it were not good, not sharp. We were acting like we were playing Black Hills State again.”
ISU experienced a breakthrough in 2014, spurting to an 8-4 record, two more wins than in the previous three seasons under Kramer. Idaho State averaged 41 points and 562 yards per game offensively and narrowly missed the FCS playoffs. In a season-opening 55-0 win over Division II Black Hills State, the Bengals piled up 710 yards while sitting their starters at halftime. ISU looked to be locked and loaded with the return of 10 offensive starters.
On Saturday, Portland State’s defense made Idaho State look pedestrian. The Bengals ran just 77 plays for 242 yards, including just 61 yards on the ground on 36 rushes. Lutali, senior cornerback Xavier Coleman and senior safety Patrick Onwuasor each had interceptions. Senior defensive end Savali Talalemotu, senior defensive tackle Daniel Fusi and sophomore defensive end Davond Dade all had sacks. The Vikings held ISU to 5-of-20 on third downs, forced six three-and-outs and shut out the Bengals after halftime.
“We were not intimidated at all,” said Lutali,who finished with 11 tackles. “Last year was last year, this year is this year. This year on our defense, we have chemistry. Everyone is on the same page and executing our assignments and executing plays.
“We came out here with a game plan to disguise coverage and confuse them. We played hard, everyone did their job and we all executed plays.”
During Idaho State’s first drive to open the game, it looked like ISU would be as potent as the past season. The Bengals marched 75 yards in 15 plays, junior quarterback Michael Sanders completed 4-of-5 passes and ISU capped the drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass from Sanders to Hagen Graves.
Portland State wasted no time responding. Sophomore cornerback Kahlil Dawson fielded the ensuing kickoff on the 6-yard line and began his return up the Idaho State sideline. He pressed the return back to the wide side of the field, picked up a block around the 30 and turned on the jets, exploding for a 94-yard kick return to tie the game.
PSU forced ISU to punt after three plays. Portland State took over at its own 34. Four plays later, Vikings’ junior quarterback Alex Kuresa ran play-action and found a wide open Trent Riley down the ISU sideline for a 50-yard touchdown. PSU stopped ISU’s fake punt attempt to take over in Bengal territory on the next possession and converted it into a 51-yard Jonathan Gonzalez field goal. The double-digit lead held for the final 49 minutes of the game. PSU rushed for 236 yards, including 113 by David Jones and possessed the ball for nearly 35 minutes.
“After that first drive, I was like, ‘Uh oh,’” Barnum said. “We talked about coming here and weathering the storm. We knew they were going to be fired up. We know they are well coached. I didn’t think it would be that quick but it was a great check to the momentum, a great equalizer with the kick return. Then we started playing football.”
A Paris Penn 38-yard touchdown on an end-around gave PSU a 24-7 lead. Idaho State’s only other score came with a stroke of luck. Sanders fumbled a snap with less than two minutes to play in the first half. He recovered the ball and found an open Josh Cook. The tight end did the rest, making a Viking miss in scoring a 48-yard touchdown.
After halftime, special teams and turnovers continued to doom the hosts. A bad snap on a punt gave PSU the ball on the ISU 5. The Bengals forced a turnover immediately after but turned the ball over two more times before the action ended.
“We just got outplayed Play 1 to Play 144,” Kramer said. “We missed tackles, reached and grabbed on defense. We didn’t force turnovers. We couldn’t generate first downs. We went to sleep after our opening drive. Golly. We have a lot of names for our offense Rip Van Winkle ain’t one of them. We went to sleep for 99 years after that opening touchdown. We were God awful. Give Portland State all the credit. They flat out beat us.”
Portland State has a bye next week. Idaho State plays at Boise State.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.