Surprising Portland State prepares for difficult stretch

At the onset of the season, few gave Portland State much of a chance to contend for a title in one of the deepest conferences in the FCS.

A month in, however, and the Vikings are the Big Sky’s only undefeated team.

Thrust into the spotlight, Portland State has been one of the FCS’ feel-good stories, but interim coach Bruce Barnum knows staying in the driver’s seat in the Big Sky won’t be easy, especially with the schedule about to take a major turn.

Picked to finish 12th in the league by the media, the Vikings first opened some eyes with a season-opening 24-17 win over Washington State – their first victory in 15 tries against the Pac-12 and third win in 35 games against FBS teams.

Coming off perhaps the biggest win in program history, Portland State was primed for a letdown at then-No. 23 Idaho State but cruised to a 34-14 victory, ending a 21-game losing streak to ranked opponents.

The Vikings picked up right where they left off following a bye week, dominating Western Oregon 31-0 last Saturday for their first shutout in 49 games.

Off to its best start since opening 6-0 in 2000, Portland State (3-0, 1-0) has already matched its win total from last season, when Barnum was the offensive coordinator.

While the offense has put more of an emphasis on the run behind dual-threat quarterback Alex Kuresa and senior running back David Jones, the biggest reason for the turnaround from last year’s 3-9 finish has been a suffocating defense under first-year coordinator Malik Roberson.

Before the start of the season, Barnum introduced the term BarnyBall – defined as "blue-collar, tough, hard-nosed, fundamental football" – and his team has taken to the concept of playing fast and flying to the ball to make plays.

A year after allowing 34.0 points per game and finishing with a Big Sky-worst six interceptions, Portland State is third in the FCS in scoring defense at 10.3 points and already has seven picks. The Vikings are second in the FCS in turnover margin at plus-seven after ranking last in the Big Sky a year ago at minus-12.

"The system that’s Malik’s put in, he simplified it," Barnum said. "We have a system that we want to attack and keep things in front of us. … Attack up front and when they do catch it hit them in the mouth. That’s kind of what we have going right here right now on defense."

Special teams have also contributed to the surprising start with Portland State ranking second in the FCS in kickoff return average at 31.3 yards. The field position attained from the return game and by interceptions has greatly aided an offense that is still trying to find its rhythm.

Moving up a spot to No. 16 in the latest STATS FCS Top 25, the Vikings have their highest ranking since checking in at No. 15 in 2006.

Staying in the poll and challenging for their first Big Sky title in their 20th season in the conference won’t be easy as a daunting October slate doesn’t allow much room for error. After playing North Dakota at suburban Hillsboro because of a conflict at Providence Park with the Portland Timbers of MLS, the Vikings visit North Texas of the FBS before hosting No. 11 Montana State and No. 13 Montana around a trip to Cal Poly.

"We’ll try to take it one game at a time. We have to," Barnum said. "It is a brutal schedule but everybody’s saying that. We’ll bring the fight each Saturday and see what happens."

North Dakota (3-1, 1-0) is almost a mirror image of Portland State, possessing a formidable defense, strong special teams and an inconsistent offense. Its only loss came to four-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State and it beat Wyoming of the FBS in its opener.

"There whole operation is a concern," Barnum said of North Dakota.

The biggest challenge for Barnum is moving the ball against a North Dakota team that allows a Big Sky-low 62.3 rushing yards per game, just ahead of the Vikings at 64.0.

Portland State is third in the conference in rushing at 241.7 yards per game with Kuresa gaining a team-best 211, but if running against North Dakota is a struggle, the Vikings have shown no proficiency for airing it out. Kuresa is completing 47.8 percent of his passes and Portland State ranks 115th out of 125 FCS schools in passing at 98.0 yards per game.

"It looks like they put 12 guys in the box to stop the run and you try to throw it and they knock that down," Barnum said.

North Dakota rallied from 10 down in the second half to beat Portland State 24-16 last season, stopping the Vikings on the two-yard line on a fourth-and-goal on the game’s final play.

"They’ve gotten better from last year, they haven’t gotten worse," Barnum said. "So it’s a nervous week here in Vikingland."