Head coach Nigel Burton likes the vast improvements he's overseen in his Vikings this season.
Besides the fact that PSU has a coach named Nigel, there's a lot to know about Portland State. They run an offense quite unlike any TCU has faced this season (Horned Frog schedule, roster, stats), and like Louisiana Monroe, they're in the second year of a rebuild with a new coach, implementing new schemes, with considerable success. Frogs O' War isn't going so far as to call this a trap game, but PSU is not as much a creampuff as some of the other 2-A teams to visit TCU since Gary Patterson has been at the helm.
About mid-season last year, Northern Arizona clobbered Portland State in Flagstaff, starting a seven-game losing streak for he Viking. Senior quarterback Connor Kavanaugh, who didn’t play much of the game because of a hand injury, said it was "the only game I've ever felt sick after watching." In this season’s rematch, PSU wanted revenge. Linebacker Ryan Rau said before the game that it would "define ourselves for the Big Sky."
Portland State got its revenge on Northern Arizona on Saturday, when NAU’s kicker missed the would-be game winning field goal in the final seconds, handing PSU the victory. Viking runningback Cory McCaffrey scored twice in the first quarter. In the remaining three quarters, PSU led 14-0 and outgained Northern Arizona 100-22. McCaffrey finished with 222 yards.
Kavanaugh, who finished with a career-high 134 yards rushing, said the win showed the Vikings’ character. "I think this win is huge because of the emotional roller coaster that we've been through," he said. "Guys didn't quit and guys stepped up, and leaders made plays."
It is the first important win for head coach Nigel Burton, who is in his second year at Portland State. His inaugural campaign was good on offense (which Burton converted from the run-n-shoot to a Pistol-based run-first attack) and terrible on defense. Runningbacks Cory McCaffrey and Willie Griffin combined for 140 rushing yards per game on average, McCaffrey gaining the lion's share. The passing attack was very average, not quite tipping 200 yards per game. Connor Kavanaugh and Tygue Howland shared quarterback duties, Howland in a sixth year of eligibility. Injuries plagued PSU all season.
All told, the crew only managed 23 points per game, while giving up over 40; it’s no wonder PSU went 2-9 last season. His team's year learning together makes him optimistic that his 4-3 defense and pistol offense can succeed in the Big Sky Conference.
"It was tough in that you would anticipate getting better as the year went on and all of a sudden the depth was being reshuffled," Coach Burton said. "The system is what allowed us to be close in a lot of games but those games, however many of them there were, that came down to the wire, we didn't necessarily have a guy who stepped in the huddle and said throw me the ball or stepped in the huddle and said I hope they run it my way so I can end it."
"Everything was different," Burton said, comparing this year’s first day of fall camp to last year’s. "Our guys know what to expect, they understand how practice flows, they understand the tempo, they understand the organized chaos and the pace we move whereas I think last year it was all form and pushing now, it's just going."
Kavanaugh agreed: "(Last year) I don't think anybody knew each other," he said. "This year we know exactly what we have to do. We know the goals and guys are definitely excited."
So far, the improvement has been almost boundless. PSU leads the Big Sky in points per game (41.5), yards per game (512), rushing yards per game (348), third down conversion rate (48.3%), defensive points per game (14.5), defensive yards per game (254.5) and rushing yards allowed (70.5 per game).
Burton insisted on competition this fall, despite a high number of returning starters.
Senior quarterback Connor Kavanaugh had only "about a toenail up" on the competition for the starting job, according to his head coach. He has started both games this season. Engstrom ran the twos in the spring game, primarily the read option. Milhollin is more of a passer, but still is catching up to the speed of the college game.
"I think there are several positions where we'll have a returning starter who probably won't start," Burton said at the start of pre-season camp. "There aren't any clear number ones. The only things you can pretty much bet on at this point are that (safety) DeShawn Shead will play somewhere, (running back) Cory McCaffrey will play and probably (offensive lineman) Dustin Waldron. Other than those three I think everyone is fighting for their job."
"Each one of [the young backups] has something they can add," Burton said. "Connor is still that field general. We know that Drew can sling it. The young guys, we got them more reps towards the end of spring, and they did a nice job."
Blocking for Portland State's pistol attack are five starters who all have a year's experience running the pistol. Senior LT Dustin Waldron, and junior LG Kyle Ritt have 45 starts between them. Of the new starters, C Adam Kleffner and RG Bruce Seumanutafa are upperclassmen, and are the line's big men. Kleffner is 6-3, 310 pounds, and Seumanutafa is 6-5, 350 pounds (down 50 pounds from last season!). Sophomore RT Mitchell Van Dyk is the young player of the group, having played now in five games.
Backup LT Joey Esposito, recovered from a second bout of testicular cancer, played at about 75 percent this spring. Coach Davis can’t say enough about him.
The star of the team is Big Sky's first-team all-conference runningback Cory McCaffrey. The 5-9, 185 pounds senior carried the ball 231 times last season for 1,287 yards and 10 touchdowns. McCaffrey is in a trio of PSU rushers (including the quarterback and Shaquille Richard) who average 42 carries for 296 yards in two games this season.
"You can't put a heart inside of somebody and make them tough," Davis said. "He had that. He learned it a long time ago. I didn't reach him that. He was a diamond in the rough for us."
The Vikings want to develop an air attack this season. Receiver Justin Monahan hauled in 30 passes for 369 yards and a pair of touchdowns last season. He's the senior statesman of the receiving corps this season, but only played in the opener this season. A.J. Powell might emerge as Kavanaugh’s go-to receiver, tallying 6 grabs so far, and playing in both games. Intriguing target Tree Thomas, from the basketball team (he’s 6-8) has two catches so far for 3 yards.
ANY LIFE AT ALL IN THE DEFENSE would mark distinct improvement over 2010's dismal showing. Nigel Burton says his crew has done more than just improve.
"What I really appreciate is the way the defense stepped up," he said. "They're playing with pride, they're getting after it, they're tackling better, they're causing takeaways, they're doing the things that we're going to need to do in fall to compete for a championship as opposed to just having a winning season."
Up front, coach Burton was particularly excited about the improvement he sees on his defensive line. The Vikings play a 4-3 defense, and three expected starters on the line have starting experience—LT Jack Forbes, a JUCO transfer, is the exception. LT Alika Vaiese, RT Julious Moore, and RE Carl Sommer return for 2011. Sommer is the star, racking up 45 tackles, 11 for losses, last season. The group has stuffed the run so far this season. After allowing 233 rush yards per game in 2010, PSU has held its first two opponents only 141 yards combined. That’s a 70% improvement, to date.
One of the JUCO transfers at linebacker that Burton has expected to be a key to the defense has yet to play, Ian Sluss. Dionte Brooks, the other, has backed up the starters in both games. "They've been outstanding in offseason workouts and I have a lot of expectations for them," he said of the pair this fall. Brooks and Sluss are presently listed as backups behind returning starters Ryan Rau and Shane Melbo. Joel Sisler is the starting strongside linebacker.
In the secondary, all-conference corner DeShawn Shead now starts at safety, and corner David Ross fought off a challenge from JUCO transfer Aaron Kincy at corner. Manoa Latu returns at the second safety spot, and Michael Williams starts at the other corner. Senior backup safety Donte Almondmade the play of the game last week, intercepting the Lumberjack quarterback to stop what likely would have been the winning score.
One area where Portland State did not do poorly last season was kicking and punting. Kicker Zach Brown returns to pad his career lead at the school for field goals—presently at 36. Braedyn Eagle has been the Viking's only long snapper for three years, and returns for a fourth. The new player is punter Thomas Duyndam, from Australia.
Because PSU is a ground-based offense, expect them TCU to have a lot more success on defense than we saw early against ULM, or against Baylor's balanced attack. After a half-hearted effort against ULM on Saturday, the Frogs will play with more passion against the Vikings, and with TCU's size and conditioning disparity, will have the game well in hand before half-time. Connor Kavanaugh will test TCU's secondary, and fail. This is a body bag game, and will be ugly.
I've always hated these inter-divisional matches, and I wish TCU would schedule UTEP, North Texas, and Rice before dipping into the 2-As for the annual creampuff game. TCU 44, PSU 13.