Struggling Portland St. faces Washington
A year ago, Portland State became just the third program in FCS history to defeat two FBS opponents in a single season.
Following a disastrous performance in its first such matchup of 2016, an 0-2 record against the higher division is looking likely with Saturday night's visit to Washington, the eighth-ranked team in the FBS.
The Vikings were the darlings of the FCS in 2015, knocking off Washington State and North Texas and finished second in the Big Sky after being picked to go 12th in the 13-team conference. They earned the school's first playoff appearance since 2000 and interim coach Bruce Barnum was rewarded with a five-year extension on his way to being named the Big Sky and STATS FCS Coach of the Year.
While Barnum's team may have been overlooked at times last season, it is no longer sneaking up on anyone. It was picked by the Big Sky coaches to finish second in the league and was ranked 17th in the STATS FCS preseason poll.
The 2016 season is only two games old, but 19th-ranked Portland State has hardly looked like one of the upper-echelon teams of the FCS.
Opening against Division II Central Washington, the Vikings were penalized 10 times and trailed by five points after three quarters before scoring three touchdowns to pull away for a 43-26 win.
Last weekend in a matchup with a San Jose State team that opened with a 35-point loss to Tulsa, Portland State turned the ball over six times in a 66-35 setback. Defense was the calling card for Barnum's team in 2015, but it was run over for 642 yards – including 409 on the ground – in surrendering its most points since a 69-0 loss to Oregon in 2010.
The road only gets tougher with its first matchup against a top-10 FBS team since that drubbing by the Ducks six years ago.
“We go into these games expecting to win, and we did last year, twice,” Barnum said of facing FBS teams. “The odds are against you in these money games, but we have the attitude of not losing the game before we get there. We'll show up, we will fight, I can guarantee you that. There won't be any quit in us.”
Washington has enjoyed moderate success over the past few years but entered 2016 ranked in the AP preseason poll for the first time since 2003. Two game in and it is living up to preseason hype, leading Rutgers by 45 in a 48-13 win in the opener and scoring the first 42 points in last week's 59-14 victory over Idaho.
The Huskies have certainly made a believer out of Barnum, who has said they are a national title contender.
“If I was in front of the tote board, I'd mortgage my house,” he said, “and put it on the Huskies.”
The program's first Pac-12 title since 2000 is on the minds of Huskie fans and sophomore quarterback Jake Browning is a big reason why.
Browning tied the school record with five touchdown passes last week to give him eight on the season to just one interception. His 74.5 completion percentage is fourth-best in the FBS among those with at least 50 attempts and his average of 10.6 yards per attempt ranks sixth.
He now gets to take on defense that is struggling against the pass.
The Vikings were 12th in the FCS in opponent passer rating last season, intercepting 18 passes. They've yet to pick off a pass this year and have the FCS' 12th-worst opponent QB rating.
While the defense is off to a slow start, Portland State's rushing attack hasn't missed a beat from last season.
The Vikings rank in the top 20 in the FCS in run yards (244 per game) and average (5.4), with dual-threat quarterback Alex Kuresa and seniors Paris Penn and Nate Tago all rushing for at least 150 yards. Penn is averaging 8.6 per attempt and Kuresa has already amassed 587 total yards with five touchdowns.
“Portland State's quarterback is the best runner we've seen yet. He's hard to tackle,” said Washington coach Chris Petersen, who played quarterback at Portland State from 1993-94. “Portland State does a great job with their offense. It's a really good scheme, they're playing to their strengths and their quarterback really makes some things happen.”
Kuresa, however, didn't have one of his better performances last week, throwing a career-high three interceptions. It didn't help that senior Darnell Adams, Portland State's leading receiver of 2015, was injured on the first offensive play and is unlikely to play this week.
Safety Walter Santiago, a senior captain, was also injured on the defense's first play and is done for the year.
In its only other meeting with Washington in 2012, Portland State trailed 45-0 at halftime and went on to lose 52-13.
“The Huskies, very fast football team,” Barnum said. “They're ranked eighth, we're ranked 19th, so, you know, we should be in it.”