Portland State football eyes continued improvement
With four games remaining, beginning with a 2 p.m. Saturday contest against Cal Poly at Hillsboro Stadium, the Portland State Vikings have no time to waste.
Coming off their bye week, the Vikings (3-4 and 2-2 in the Big Sky Conference) need a big finish for any chance to qualify for the FCS playoffs. To get there, they'll need to start fast, something that has been a challenge at times.
In three of their four losses, the Vikings have fallen behind early. Each time they've shown plenty of fight, but not been able to overcome slow starts.
Being ready to start fast, and play fast for four quarters, is a message coach Bruce Barnum has repeated to his players.
"Just keep it in their minds even when they're at school, even study fast, everything," Barnum said.
Barnum is pleased with continued improvement in many areas game-to-game and practice-to-practice. After a year away from football, players and coaches alike want to make the most of their opportunities.
He sees a defense that is becoming more consistent while mixing up schemes to get opposing offenses off balance. He sees an offense that's capable of producing more than the 26 points per game it's averaging.
"This is what excites me about the last four games. I don't even know what we're averaging, I'm not really a stat guy, but I think we have the capability to score a bunch."
The stats indicate better balance might help. Because of backfield injuries, Malik Walker (116 carries, 526 yards, five touchdowns) has had to carry the load. Quarterback Davis Alexander is the only other Viking with significant carries (52 for 144 yards).
Alexander has needed to produce with his arm, and has completed 59% of his passes, 15 for touchdowns. He is averaging 287 yards per game and has developed real chemistry with junior Beau Kelly.
Kelly has caught 46 passes for 640 yards and eight touchdowns, many of them coming at key times.
Other bright spots so far include: The play and leadership of All-American defensive back Anthony Adams (four takeaways). … Freshman placekicker Gianni Smith has made four of six field goals and all 14 extra points since junior Cody Williams, one of the best kickers in the Big Sky, was lost to season-ending injuries after three games. … Junior defensive lineman VJ Malo has 8 1/2 sacks, 12 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles in the Oct. 16 win over Idaho State. … Parker McKenna, a freshman linebacker from Beaverton (and former Metro League defensive player of the year) leads the team in tackles by a wide margin with 57 (31 solo).
Portland State's two conference wins came over 1-6 Idaho State two weeks ago and at 1-7 Southern Utah. A win over a Cal Poly team that comes to Hillsboro at 1-6 is a must before the Vikings hit the road to take on Weber State and Sacramento State. They close the season with a Nov. 20 home game against Big Sky leader Eastern Washington.
Barnum is excited to see his team continue to improve — perhaps enough to earn a playoff berth.
"If we play four quarters, I think we're a pretty damn good football team."
If PSU reaches its potential, unsung defensive lineman Noah Yunker will deserve some of the credit, Barnum believes. Yunker's career ended with a foot injury on Oct. 9 at Idaho. Barnum said rather than worrying about himself, as he laid on the turf Yunker was imploring his defensive mates to make a stand.
Yunker returned from injuries that ended his 2018 and 2019 seasons and waited through the lost 2020 season to play this year, Barnum noted.
"He rolled his little scooter with his messed-up, operated-on foot into that locker room and I thought the place was gonna fall down," Barnum said. "Just the emotion, chanting his name. He's done so much that the public doesn't see on and off the field. So having him around is kind of reminding everybody, let's keep doing what we're doing, let's keep getting better. Let's keep improving and it's kept our practices high tempo."
Pac-12 update —Â Oct. 23 was a day to remember in the Willamette Valley as both the Beavers and Ducks fell behind 14-0 but rallied to win. The Oregon schools are tied atop the North Division at 3-1.
In addition to the resiliency from each team, what stood out most last weekend was the way Oregon's defensive front took over at UCLA and the way Oregon State's offensive line continued to push around pretty good defenses.
Colorado at Oregon, 12:30 p.m. Oct. 30 (FOX 12). Trib's take: Colorado's defense is OK, but if Oregon is going to emerge as the North Division champ, the Ducks need to win comfortably here. Oregon 34, Colorado 14.
Oregon State at Cal, 4 p.m. Oct. 30 (Pac-12 Network). Trib's take: Two teams used to playing close games play another one. If the Beavers aren't too physically and emotionally beat up after beating Utah, they find a way to prevail. Oregon State 30, California 20.
Cal Poly at Portland State, 2:05 p.m. Oct. 30 at Hillsboro Stadium (ESPN+). Trib's take: Coming off their bye, the Vikings should be focused and motivated for a must-have game. The Mustangs have struggled in Beau Baldwin's first season at the helm. Portland State 45, Cal Poly 17.
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