As the Vikings swarmed and smashed the Bengals, Malik Roberson’s passion seemed to be contagious.
Portland State’s first-year defensive coordinator has long been a fiery coach with an inner competitive desire that he’s tried to pass along to his players. As Portland State smothered Idaho State, an offense that led the FCS in total offense in 2014, Roberson’s intensity continued to grow. It’s a coaching style that has helped transform a Vikings defensive unit from middle of the Big Sky Conference pack to one of the most ferocious units in the country during the first half of this season.
“Coach Roberson, he lives off intensity,” PSU senior defensive tackle Daniel Fusi said. “He makes sure we have the same intensity as him during the week when we have to focus in.”
That afternoon in Pocatello, the Vikings suffocated the Bengals, forcing three turnovers, sacking ISU quarterback Michael Sanders three times and holding the hosts to 282 yards overall in a 34-14 win to kick off the Big Sky season.
Through five games, the Vikings have exceeded expectations largely by redefining their identity. Portland State leads the conference in scoring defense (11.4 points per game), total defense (294.2 yards per game) and pass efficiency defense (94.0). Opponents average a league-low 15.8 first downs per game and convert just 24.4 percent of their third-down tries against the Vikings.
“We simplified everything to help our guys play faster and aggressive in our whole scheme,” Roberson said on Tuesday afternoon. “That’s the bottom line. You have to play as hard as you can. We practice fundamentals every day and make sure our kids know what to do in all situations.
“Our expectation for these guys was to reach this point, win in this way, grow and reach this point together “
As No. 17 PSU prepares to host No. 16 Montana State on Saturday afternoon, the Vikings find themselves right in the mix of the Big Sky title race. A team picked to finish 12th in the 13-team lead already has four wins, including two FBS victories thanks in large part to a defense that has allowed just six touchdowns all season. The tough, physical identity is something first-year head coach Bruce Barnum said the Vikings gain from their defensive mindset.
“The defense has always been tough but now I would say we have a tough football team,” said Barnum, who signed a five-year contract extension on Wednesday to eliminate his interim status. “We got it from that group. They showed us the way.”
Last season, Portland State allowed 34 points and nearly 450 yards per game as the Vikings finished with a losing record for the third time in Nigel Burton’s five seasons at the helm. In November, Burton, the former defensive coordinator for the Nevada Wolfpack, was fired. Barnum was elevated to interim status and had to quickly hire a staff, the part of the transition he called the most difficult.
Barnum and Roberson served on Burton’s staff in 2011 as the Vikings went 7-4, Barnum as the offensive coordinator and Roberson as the defensive line coach. Barnum, an Eastern Washington alum, had been following Roberson’s career for some time. Roberson coached defensive line at EWU from 2002 until 2007, a time period where Barnum was the offensive coordinator at ISU. In Cheney, Roberson helped develop five All-Big Sky defensive linemen, including Greg Peach, a defensive end who would win the 2008 Buck Buchanan Award a season after Roberson’s departure.
Roberson spent 2008 until 2010 as the defensive line coach on Paul Wulff’s staff at Washington State before returning to Portland for a season. In 2012 and 2013, Roberson served on Blaine Bennett’s staff as the defensive coordinator at Division II Central Washington before returning to PSU as the defensive line coach last fall.
“I trust Malik. I knew what he was all about,” Barnum said. “I knew he cut his spurs a little bit at Central Washington. And I knew how much intensity he would bring. It was a home run. They are playing exactly how the system is set in.”
The Vikings’ shifting defense is somewhat similar to the “Desert Swarm” flex defenses made famous at the University of Arizona last decade. All the defensive line positions except for the nose spot manned by 6-foot, 340-pound plug Daniel Fusi are interchangeable and the front will rotate personnel and between odd and four-man. In the secondary, the play-making ability of senior corners Aaron Sibley and Xavier Coleman and the hard-hitting style of safety Patrick Onwuasor provide stability that lets the front seven swarm ball carries.
“The system that Malik is putting in, he’s simplified it,” Barnum said. “Last year, we gave up some long ball heartbreakers when we shouldn’t of, when we were winning the game. It’s tough to run 14 plays and score. That’s tough to do in any game today, high school, college, NFL. Idaho State did it their first possession and then we stuffed them. That’s the plan: attack up front and when they do catch it, hit them in the mouth.
“We are fast, we know where we are supposed to be and we are going to strike your ass when you get it. Whether it’s for a yard or 20 yards, you are going to pay for it when you get the football.”
Portland State’s defensive game plan has not variety much so far this season. The Vikings have played pass-heavy teams like Washington State (a 24-17 win), Idaho State and North Texas (a 66-7 win). The Viks have also taken on run-heavy North Dakota, a 19-16 loss in what Barnum called a “bar room brawl.”
On Saturday, Portland State will try to stop one of the most prolific offenses in the FCS. Montana State enters the game leading the league and ranked in the top six in the country in scoring (43.2 points per game) and total offense (564.8 yards per game). Junior quarterback Dakota Prukop leads the FCS with 409 yards of total offense per outing.
“What I’m seeing out of this guy (Roberson) the last six games, he doesn’t back off,” MSU third-year offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey said. “He went right at Washington State, who just beat Oregon. I think his mentality is to do what he is going to do and play that aggressive football. He’s not a big blitz guy but I’m talking about the effort they play with, that’s what we are going to have to match.
“The thing that I will continue to harp on my guys this week is Portland State plays hard, the hardest of any team we’ve played so far this year and that’s what makes them as statistically dominant as they are right now.”
The emergence and buy in from a collection of PSU seniors has also been integral to the successful start. Senior defensive end Sadat Sulleyman has proven to be versatile, moving up and down the defensive front. Senior tackle Junior Alexis, a former Miami transfer who earned All-Big Sky honors last fall, is expected back to full strength this week after missing a chunk of time because of an off-season knee injury. The anchor in the middle is Fusi, a bull with a low center of gravity and substantial strength that helps hold down the interior of PSU’s defensive front.
“He’s a very good leader and he wants to do well, has a desire to be successful,” Roberson said of Fusi. “That makes everyone else better around him. He has that positive effect about him. It’s not just about him. It’s about who is playing next to him and he cares about how they are playing and how they are doing because he knows it takes everyone working together. That strength of his has turned around the defensive side of the ball.”
Senior Jeremy Lutali is the rock in the middle, PSU’s leading tackler from his Mike linebacker spot in a group that otherwise is filled with young players. Sibley is an All-America candidate Coleman’s three interceptions could earn him post-season recognition as well. Patrick Onwuasor is the catalyst, a physical, 6-foot-2, 225-pounder who plays in the box as well as in coverage.
“We want to use his strengths, have him run the alley,” Roberson said of Onwuasor, a former transfer from Arizona. “He’s our best tackler. We are trying to utilize that. He covers a lot of ground. He’s a longer cat. We use his strengths because he runs so well and he’s so physical.”
On Saturday, Portland State will host Montana State for the first time since Roberson’s first stint in the City of Roses four years ago. The Bobcats provide a different challenge than any team PSU has faced this far because of their diversity on offense. Roberson said he doesn’t know how his team will match up, calling MSU a “well-oiled machine that is hitting on all cylinders right now.”
“Our approach is simple, really: tackle the guy with the ball,” Roberson said. “It’s not complicated. When you get there, knock his head off. Play hard from the opening whistle to the final buzzer. We do that and we will be ready when the moment of truth comes.”
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