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By Steve Brandon/Portland Tribune/Defense leads way as Portland State preps for Eastern Oregon

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY - TALALEMOTUThe month-long, cross-country, equal-opportunity for all-comers Portland State football preseason comes to end on Saturday. The NCAA FCS Vikings will play host to NAIA Eastern Oregon at 2 p.m. at Hillsboro Stadium.

Then it's on to the real deal, to the games that matter most and to more even competition. Also known as the Big Sky season, which for PSU begins Sept. 28 at Idaho State.

So far, the Vikings have been up, down and all around, in more ways than one.

They gave Arkansas of the Southeastern Conference a battle Aug. 31 at Fayetteville, losing only 20-13. Interesting, for sure.

Then they whupped NAIA Simon Fraser 70-7 in Hillsboro. Ho-hum.

Then they lost 45-10 at No. 20 Boise State on Saturday. Not bad.

But what have they showed or proved?

"We can compete with anybody," PSU quarterback Davis Alexander said after practice on Wednesday at Stott Community Field. "I think we've shown we are a talented team."

Portland State coach Bruce Barnum elaborated on the topic.

"We've showed have a strong defense," he said. "And special teams — I think I have a punter (Seth Vernon) and kicker (Cody Williams) who can do it for anybody. They're playing lights out. … Offensively, we're starting to know who we are. This week and next year, we'll get some guys back there, three starters. We've just got to be more consistent on offense. And all around, we've especially got to clean up the penalties."

The Vikings didn't have a turnover at Boise State, but they were flagged for 12 penalties, which cost them 95 yards. Worse, one call wiped out a touchdown.

After three games, the Viks are the most penalized team in the Big Sky at 92.7 yards per game.

But, oh, that defense.

"Our defense has played phenomenal," Alexander said.

"They're playing fast, aggressive. They're fun to watch," Barnum said.

It's the second year for PSU with defensive coordinator Payam Saadat, who takes a bit of an unorthodox, aggressive approach that is geared at pressuring the quarterback, causing havoc and getting turnovers.

The Vikings have accumulated the athletes, quickness and experience to make Saadat's diabolical dreams work pretty well.

The defensive line and front seven have been sturdy, led by such seniors as tackle Kenton Barlett, end Shawn Richard and rover Romeo Gunt, and sophomore linebacker Robert Holt.

In the defensive backfield, senior free saftey Ryan Lesch had an interception and a team-high eight tackles at Boise State, and sophomore safety Anthony Adams ranks second in the nation with seven pass breakups. He also blocked a field goal against Simon Fraser.

The D-line main men have included Jake Porter, a sophomore rush specialist out of West Linn High; former Roosevelt High standout/junior Semise Kofe, senior Anthony Del Toro (ex-Grants Pass High) and sophomore Boogie Davis (ex-Westview High) at tackle spots; and junior Noah Yunker (ex-Summit High) at end.

As for the offense, former Vikings coordinator Barnum is still tinkering a bit and pushing buttons, but PSU has showed some explosiveness in the passing game. The offense has bogged down a bit too much for Barnum's liking (see: penalties).

The Vikings scored early at Boise State, but after a 52-yard gain on an option pitch to wide receiver Beau Kelly, they had to turn to Williams and settle for a field goal of 26 yards.

PSU's other big play on the Broncos' blue turf was a 50-yard touchdown pass from Alexander to sophomore wideout Mataio Talalemotu from Beaverton High.

Alexander has completed 56.5% of his passes this season, going 39 of 69 for 506 yards and four touchdowns, with two interceptions.

A 5-11, 195-pound junior who is slippery when pressured and not afraid to take off or take a hit in the open field, he's also run 29 times for 71 net yards. His scrambles are often good for first downs, or at least they get PSU out of potential losses. That's good and bad news for the Vikings.

"We have to protect him being. He's being hit too much," Barnumsaid.

Alexander has come to the sidelines limping more than once, but he keeps on ticking.

"I'm good. A little banged up after Week 1, but getting more healthy. I feel good."

Still, Barnum would like the offensive line to come together more as a unit, and he's been looking for what might be the missing link, a regular right tackle.

"The O-line, you need five guys who jell," Barnum said. "That has to happen for us to be succcessful offensively."

Junior Daniel Giannosa started at right tackle the first two games. Sophomore Brady Brick from Battle Ground, Washington, started at Boise State.

On Saturday against Eastern Oregon, help could come from redshirt freshman Shiloh Ta'ase, who prepped in Seattle.

Perhaps as early as this week, the next man up at right tackle might be senior Carlos Barraza, who finished last season as the starter there.

Elsewhere up front for PSU are Korbin Sorensen, a junior left tackle from Kennewick, Wash.; Larry Brister, an unsung player out of Jefferson High who has emerged as a senior starter at left guard; veteran senior Garrett Stauffer (Barlow High) at center; and junior Babak Ghadaksaz from Irvine, California, at right guard.

The running game has, as expected, been by committee and is a work in progress. Seniors Carlos Martin and Sirgeo Hoffman (ex-Gresham High) and junior Evyn Holtz are the main backs, with others, including junior Malik Walker, more in the wings. Martin leads the team in yards rushing but has only 76 in three games (4.2 per carry).

Alexander has plenty of receiving targets who have taken turns making plays. The list includes junior Emmanuel Daigbe and sophomores Talalemoto, Davis Koetter, Kelly and George McCorley. Talalemoto has a team-best 12 catches for 17.9 yards per reception and with two touchdowns.

While Alexander has established himself as the starting quarterback, junior Jalani Eason continues to get playing time as the backup, and 6-3, 170-pound freshman Dante Chachere from Fresno, Calif., is a speedy running threat as the No. 3 guy.

The players who could return to action on Saturday also include Vikings poster star and senior tight end Charlie Taumopeau, considered a possible NFL player, and slot receiver Easton Trakel, who caught seven passes in four games a year ago and is a 5-9 junior out of Olympia, Washington.

If Taumopeau plays, it'll be mostly to knock off some rust before the Big Sky season.

If and when the Vikings offense stalls, PSU can turn to either Vernon or Williams, depending on the situation.

Vernon, a 6-5, 230-pound junior, is averaging 42.8 yards, the best by a Viking since Kyle Loomis' 46.0 year in 2014. He came to Portland State after playing mostly receiver for his hometown Santa Rosa Junior College in California, and he's been the answer to some prayers.

"We had the worst punting game in the conference last year," Barnum said. " I had to clean that up. I'm not going to let that happen again."

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