As Aaron Sibley walked around campus this week, people noticed him. They complimented the Portland State senior cornerback, saying things like, ‘Nice interception’, ‘Way to block that kick’ and ‘What a win!’
It’s been awhile since Sibley and the Vikings had the City of Roses abuzz. That’s what a victory over a Pac 12 victory will do for you.
“It’s good to have the community finally on board for our program,” Sibley said, happiness ringing in his voice as he discussed Portland State’s shocking 24-17 upset of Washington State last Saturday. “It’s a really good feeling. We’ve been waiting for this for a long, long time.”
The year before Sibley arrived at Portland State, the Vikings were considered a team on the rise. Nigel Burton, a rising star in the coaching world, had led the Vikings to a 7-4 record in 2011 that included wins over Northern Arizona and rival Eastern Washington. A failed two-point conversion against No. 2 Montana State in Portland likely cost PSU a playoff spot but with a star-studded recruiting class coming to town, the future under Burton looked bright.
Sibley joined the Vikings in 2012. Portland State posted a 12-23 over the last three seasons. The underachievement included a slew of factors, from turnovers to injuries to internal animosity between Burton and the administration. By the end of last season’s 3-9 campaign, Burton was relieved of his duties.
In interim head coach Bruce Barnum’s first game as head coach, Portland State played like program born again. The Vikings took care of the football and attacked on the ground with authority, piling up 233 rushing yards. The go-ahead touchdown drive included 13 runs on 14 plays. Defensively, the Vikings kept Wazzu quarterback Luke Falk under constant duress and forced four Washington State fumbles.
“In the first half, we’d move the chains a little bit but then we’d trip over ourselves,” Barnum said. “Halftime, we thought we saw a couple of things formation-wise that we could try to take advantage of. Our kids came fired up in that second half and got after them and came out on the right end of the stick.
“It was a great start to what we are trying to get done,” Barnum said, now speaking with his tongue squarely in his cheek. “But I’m not real happy with it because since November, Thanksgiving, whenever I got this job, my goal was to try to sneak up on (Idaho State head) Coach (Mike) Kramer because I know what he’s got cooking over there. Winning now, we should’ve lost so they would still think, ‘It’s just Barney, boring Portland State.’ And now he’ll probably look at the film (laughs).”
On Saturday, Portland State opens its Big Sky Conference slate with a date in Pocatello against Kramer’s upstart Idaho State Bengals. When Burton took over at PSU, Kramer took the ISU job and the resurrection process at least as arduous. ISU posted a 6-39 record in four seasons under John Zamberlin, digging itself into an academic hole that resulted in probation in the process. Kramer’s first three seasons produced six total wins before last year’s breakthrough 8-4 campaign.
Barnum is an Eastern Washignton alum who coached at Idaho State from 1998 until 2006. Kramer was an assistant at EWU from 1989 until 1993 before serving as the Eagles’ head coach from 1994 until 1999.
Kramer says he’s “the final brick” in the decision to open Big Sky Conference play a few weeks earlier than the rest of the league. Idaho State athletic director Jeff Tingey came to Kramer and asked him if he wanted to play the Vikings a few weeks early.
“I was like, ‘Portland State is going to play Washington State the week before us and we are going to play Black Hills State? Yeah, I’d love to play that game at that time!’ And then before our game started, I saw that Portland State had beaten Washington State and I thought, ‘What have I done?’” Kramer said with his trademark bellowing laugh. “It was our choice. Portland State wanted to move and it gives us a free week in October through our long sword of Eastern, Weber State. That’s a good time to have a bye. But to play an on-fire Portland State team in Week 2 is something that is a little disconcerting. We always tell our guys, ‘Be careful what you wish for’ and here’s what I got (laughs).”
A season ago, Idaho State led the FCS in total offense (567 yards per game) as Justin Arias threw for more than 4,000 yards and 38 touchdowns. Running back Xavier Finney complemented the prolific passing attack by leading the Big Sky in rushing yards with more than 1,400 yards. The unit returned almost completely in tact with Arias and left tackle Jim Bagley the two key cogs ISU needed to replace.
In their first time out without Arias, the Bengals appeared to be just fine. Idaho State piled up 710 yards of total offense, including 332 on the ground, and totaled 34 first downs in a 55-0 win over Division II Black Hills State. Michael Sanders, a quarterback formerly of Scottsdale Community College, completed 15-of-18 passes for 278 yards and five touchdowns before taking a seat at halftime. Finney rushed 10 times for 61 yards and a touchdown before giving way to Jakori Ford, who rushed for 201 yards as the Bengals milked the second-half clock. ISU took a 42-0 lead into halftime.
“I liked the ferocity and speed we played with last week but I’m not sure the outcome tells us anything about us,” Kramer said. “We played about a quarter and a half of our good guys. We got a little bit of work and the backups got a lot of work in the ball game. In particular, Michael Sanders played especially sharp at quarterback.
“We got our first shut out in 10 years. We haven’t played that well against Division II teams we’ve played throughout my career so I’m excited we got to step on the gas from play one and finish with a nice outcome at the end of the day.”
Sanders has a much longer release than Arias but he delivers the ball with authority and accuracy like his predecessor. He found star wide receiver Madison Mangum for a 41-yard touchdown pass less than 80 seconds into the game. He’d hook up with Mangum for two more touchdowns, including one that made ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10, a one-handed leaping grab in the corner of the end zone. Sanders also found Hagen Graves for touchdowns of 29 and 39 yards in his debut.
“What quarterback wouldn’t want to come play here?” Sanders said. “It’s such a great offense. The offensive line is veteran. Coach Kramer always talks about how important a veteran offensive line is. They make it so easy for all of us to play because there’s no pressure in our face, the running backs have huge holes and it allows us to get the ball out to receivers and let us play.”
Idaho State was an overwhelming favorite against the Division II visitors from South Dakota. Now the Bengals will welcome a surprising squad into Holt Arena. Portland State was a more than 30-point underdog to Washington State, one of the top upsets in the history of college football based on the Las Vegas betting line. The Vikings hope to ride that momentum into Pocatello.
“Any time a win like that comes during school, we definitely have momentum going into the next game, especially now that we know what we are capable of,” Sibley said. “The mindset of our team this year is very different and we believe we can go toe-to-toe with anybody, not just a Pac 12 opponent. It doesn’t matter who’s lined up on Saturday, we feel like we can compete with the best of them.”
Photos courtesy of Idaho State and Portland State Athletics. All Rights Reserved.