Resurgent Portland State Vikings surpass preseason expectations

Portland State running back Steven Long (26) celebrates his touchdown against Washington State during the second half of the Vikings’ 24-17 victory in Pullman, Wash.
Portland State running back Steven Long (26) celebrates his touchdown against Washington State during the second half of the Vikings’ 24-17 victory in Pullman, Wash. The Associated Press

When coaches and members of the media voted on the Big Sky Conference preseason poll three months ago, the Portland State Vikings weren’t expected to finish in the top half of the 13-team league.

Coaches favored Montana State and Eastern Washington to win the Big Sky, and they had the Vikings tied with North Dakota for ninth. The media picked the same conference favorites, with Portland State chosen a distant 12th.

Those mid-July polls don’t hold much water during the eighth week of the college football season, where the Vikings are 5-1 and ranked No. 14 in the STATS FCS top 25 poll. Having already defeated Pac-12 North foe Washington State and FBS-level opponent North Texas, the Vikings are one of the surprise stories in the country this fall.

“They’re a team that probably controls their own destiny a little bit right now,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said, “and we’re a team that can get back in that with a win this week.”

The Mustangs (2-4, 1-2 Big Sky) host Portland State at 6:05 p.m. Saturday at Alex G. Spanos Stadium, looking to rebound from an overtime loss at three-time defending conference champion Eastern Washington two weeks ago. They had an extra week to prepare for a Vikings team that outlasted No. 21 Montana State 59-42 last Saturday in Portland.

Scoring on its first eight possessions of the game, Portland State overcame a pair of early deficits to finish with 682 totals yards and 32 first downs. Running back David Jones turned in one of his best performances of the season and finished with 283 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries.

Under first-year head coach Bruce Barnum, the Vikings have leaned more heavily on the run than in years past. The team ranks second in the Big Sky in rushing, averaging more than 275 yards per game, second only to Cal Poly (387).

“They’re athletic at the skill positions and a good O-line,” junior defensive end Kelly Shepard said. “… They run some trick plays. So we’re just trying to make sure our fundamentals are strong and our eyes are in a good place.”

When Portland State came to San Luis Obispo for a nonconference game last season, the Mustangs scored 35 straight points to start the game and were never seriously threatened. Quarterback Chris Brown averaged more than 13 yards per carry on the way to a 159-yard, two-touchdown performance.

“This is a tough game,” Barnum said. “Last year down there they beat us up. It was embarrassing.”

Walsh expects to see a vastly improved opposing defense come Saturday.

Portland State allows less than 17 points and 319 total yards per game, both of which rank second in the conference. The Vikings field the second-best run defense in the Big Sky, allowing 126.2 yards per game, and also rank second in pass defense efficiency (98.5) and interceptions (nine).

“I’ve said all year long they’re the best defense in the league and they’re playing like it,” Walsh said.

Senior linebacker Jeremy Lutali leads the team with 48 tackles, including 1½ for lost yardage, and has one interception. Patrick Onwuasor, a senior safety, has made 35 tackles and leads the Big Sky with four interceptions. And junior defensive back Xavier Coleman has intercepted three passes with 28 tackles to his credit.

“They’ve got a couple different looks and they’ve got really good players doing it,” Walsh said. “I think they’ve done a good job of plugging their players into the positions where they can be successful.”