Vikings take upset plan to Oregon
Portland State has lost 14 football games in a row, including 72-19 at Nevada last week.
Oregon is ranked 23rd in the nation by Associated Press, has won 21 consecutive nonconference home games, has arguably the nation's top college quarterback, beat Bowling Green 58-24 last week, and so on and so forth.
The last time PSU and Oregon played, the Ducks won, 69-0 (in 2010).
And, yes, Portland State does have a plan for how to beat Oregon when they meet again at 11 a.m. Saturday in Autzen Stadium.
"I've got a game plan, and I like it," PSU coach Bruce Barnum says. "If it works, I'm going to be a hero."
If it works, he also won't have enough time in the day to talk to all the media and other coaches who will want to know how the Vikings did it.
"I understand it's a David vs. Goliath, but David got that stone in, I'm pretty sure. So who knows?" Barnum says, with a twinge of a smile and a chuckle.
"(The Ducks) still have to play us. Are they better? Yes. Are they bigger? Yes. Are they faster? Yes. Do they have three defensive coordinators and we only have one offensive coordinator? Yes.
"But we're going to line up and do our best. We'll give our players a scheme that will work. We just have to be able to match Oregon's athleticism.
"Shoot, they're one of the best teams in the country, let's be realistic."
And, if things don't work perfectly, shockingly, for Portland State on Saturday?
"Well, if you want to go deeper, I already won," Barnum says. "We're getting $575,000 (from Oregon to show up and play the Ducks), and we're going to go down and do our best to win the game."
The Vikings have had a bounce in their step in practice this week. They seem to be looking forward to their three-plus hours of Pac-12 Network fame, and this shot at the Ducks, and running onto the field before a huge and noisy and one-sided crowd in Eugene.
You might say be careful what you wish for, but "they like this," Barnum says. "Who else gets to go out on a Saturday and compete against the best? This is a team you watch on TV, a team working for the College Football Playoff. And you get a chance to go up against them?
"My kids like to compete, so they will run with it and enjoy it."
Most teams that haven't won a game since 2016 don't get the kind of attention the Vikings are getting this week.
"Everybody wants to talk to us. Everybody wants to talk Oregon and (quarterback Justin) Herbert," Barnum says.
The coach, however, points out that the Ducks are a lot more than their 6-6, 230-pound junior QB out of Sheldon High, who passed for five touchdowns and ran for another last week.
"They've got a good defense, too, led by their 7-11 combo," Barnum says, referring to No. 7 and No. 11.
No. 7 is Ugochukwu Amadi, a 5-10, 200-pound senior safety.
No. 11 is Justin Hollins, a 6-5, 240 senior outside linebacker.
"They're as good as anybody. They should be getting just as much press as Justin. They're great football players," Barnum says.
The Vikings, meanwhile, are still sorting out who they are. They're young, for one thing. Their two-deep includes 12 freshmen and 18 sophomores. Against Nevada, 12 players started their first game for PSU, and 29 of the 55 Viks who played were sophomores, redshirt freshmen or true freshmen.
The sophomores include the first- and second-string quarterbacks. Davis Alexander started and went most of the way at Nevada. He completed 13 of 32 pass attempts for 224 yards. He threw for two touchdowns — both to standout tight end Charlie Taumoepeau, who got most of the yardage after the catches.
But Alexander also had a costly pick-six after extending a play outside the pocket. The interception and TD return gave Nevada new life, after the Wolf Pack trailed, 9-0.
"He made one critical (error) we can't have. He knew it when he threw it," Barnum says of his QB. "Take that away and he played a pretty good game."
Alexander rarely gives up on a play. He's good at escaping the rush and then is always looking for a throw he can make downfield.
"He's a competitor, and he's tired of losing," Barnum says. "That's the attitude that will get us out of it, but he just has to make sure he doesn't cross the line and try to do too much. Run the system, get the football to the guys he has to get it to, and know that second-and-10's all right."
The rest of the PSU offense wasn't in midseason form yet, either.
"We had some drops, missed routes, we were sloppy," Barnum said.
And the Vikings missed a great scoring opportunity after getting to the Nevada 5-yard line in the second quarter. They went for it on fourth-and-1, but JC transfer running back Sirgeo Hoffman from Gresham High ran the wrong way out of the backfield, forcing sophomore QB Jalani Eason (inserted temporarily after a hard hit on Alexander) to eat the ball and try to get the yardage. He came up one yard short.
"We had a back go the wrong way. Youth. It was the first Division-I football game that kid's played. My fault, I was throwing him in the fire," Barnum says. "He's a big back (220), and he's going to pound for that yard. But in hindsight, you put (junior) Carlos Martin in because he's a veteran."
Those early mistakes helped the Wolf Pack find their swagger.
"We couldn't get the momentum back," Barnum said. "Nevada did a nice job on our run game. We played a pretty good football team. And it was a faster game than we'll see all season, except this week. Oregon will be the fastest team we see all year."
So, in assessing the Vikings' season opener, "I liked the start," Barnum says. "I wanted to get up on Nevada. We jumped on them, then made some mistakes, but were still in it."
Nevada got four touchdowns on four second-quarter possessions, though, to lead 30-19 at the half. And, after that, it was mostly easy sailing for the home team, with the Vikings running a bit out of gas, Barnum says.
"What I found out is, we're all right, we're pretty good when we're fast," Barnum says. "We got slow in that second half. Nevada made plays and we didn't. We were cramping up, we became slow, we became average.
"We've got to make sure we keep our speed, our endurance— whether that's with subsitutions or on it's on the coaches or the players. We've got to be ready for those situations."
That and the inexperience, notably in the secondary, were factors working against the Vikings in Reno.
"Some of our youth showed up," Barnum says of the pass defense. "And all of a sudden the game was faster than it is in practice, and they didn't adjust how we had hoped.
"A lot of people played their first football game, and yet we showed some good things. It wasn't a total travesty.
"We're going to build on those good things. You make your most improvement the first couple games, and I'm expecting a lot. Clean up the mistakes, we'll have a chance."
For Portland State, it's all about the future.
That includes the future almost here.
After the Oregon game, the Vikings will take on NAIA College of Idaho in their home opener, 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15, at Hillsboro Stadium. That will be the third and final nonleague game before PSU opens its eight-game Big Sky season with a Sept. 22 game against Montana State, also at Hillsboro Stadium.
The big thing Barnum wants to see from his team, starting this week, is "improvement. I have three games to get ready for the Big Sky, and Oregon is No. 2.
"I kind of saw who we are and what we have last week," Barnum says. "Now we're going to move the chess pieces to make sure we have our best out there and put together another game plan and eliminate mistakes and then we're going to shine it in Game 3, and then I'm going to go into the Big Sky and try to win it."