WSU in Week 1: Cougs look to make it 20-0

WHILE FCS TEAMS have made it a yearly habit of upsetting FBS squads, it’s a hard sell to predict Portland State will be one of those national stories after the Cougs play host to PSU on Sept. 5. But if there’s one thing that could give Cougar fans pause, it’s something that happened just last year.

Portland State outplayed Oregon State in the season opener last season. The Vikings led the Beavs 14-13 at the end of the first half and it should have been a wider gap. But PSU turned the ball over four times in the third quarter and lost 29-14.

Washington State, meanwhile, is 19-0 all-time against FCS opponents.

PSU returns 16 starters (six offense, eight defense, two special teams) but there’s a new head coach and new schemes coming in ‘15. Nigel Burton was fired and offensive coordinator Bruce Barnum was given a one year head coaching contract, with the new AD (hired after Barnum) to decide after the season if he wants to retain Barnum or go get ‘his guy.’

Barnum won’t make wholesale offensive changes for 2015 but he will make changes. PSU this offseason sent their coaches to Oregon, Baylor and other schools to gain some ideas for what Barnum is calling “tweaks.” But you can still expect PSU to run the ball, and likely out of the Pistol.

In each of Barnum’s five seasons as offensive coordinator, PSU has rushed for at least 2,000 yards and averaged 200-plus ypg. PSU ran the ball 458 times last season, with 423 passes attempted. They led the Big Sky with the fewest sacks allowed on the season (10). But they averaged only 24.1 ppg.

Headed into fall camp, the starting QB job is wide open, says Barnum. Odds are it comes down to two: Kieran McDonagh and Paris Penn. McDonagh is the incumbent, with 29 career starts. But Penn, who can make plays with his feet, is pushing him and may have passed him by last year were it not for a shoulder injury. Barnum remains adamant, though, that Josh Kraght, Aidan Wilder and Alex Kuresa are firmly in the mix as well.

The expected o-line starting unit (going off the pre-spring depth chart) averages 298-pounds but features only two seniors.

On defense, Barnum said the plan is to simplify the 4-3 scheme with the No. 1 emphasis being takeaways. Expect PSU defenders to try and jump the routes. PSU forced 14 turnovers last season with a minus-12 turnover margin (last in the Big Sky).

Malik Roberson, who played at WSU and later coached the Cougar d-line for three seasons under Paul Wulff (2008-10), is PSU’s new defensive coordinator after serving as the d-line coach in ’14.

The starting d-line features three seniors and a junior. The two tackles weigh 340- and 290-pounds, with the ends at 275- and 240-pounds. The projected starting linebacker trio is quick but light (220, 230, 215). The likely defensive back starters, two seniors, a junior and a sophomore, are all between 5-10 and 5-11 but PSU returns everyone from that unit, with no DB seniors in 2014.

  • Jason Belford, who was a WSU graduate assistant from 2010-11, takes over for Roberson as PSU’s d-line coach.

  • Junior college transfer Casey Eyman takes over the punting duties, following the graduation of two-time All-American and national punting leader Kyle Loomis. All-Conference kicker Jonathan Gonzales returns as does long snapper Kameron Canaday.

  • Barnum’s message this offseason has been that PSU will be getting back to playing play blue collar, tough, fundamental football, starting with the opener at Washington State.

  • Washington State beat Portland State 59-21 last season.

  • PSU was 3-9 this past season, losing four games by eight, four, four and seven points.

  • PSU is 0-14 all-time against Pac-12 opponents.

  • No PSU players were named to the 2015 Big Sky preseason all-conference team.

  • Some of the FBS teams that have been upset by FCS teams since 2007 include: Florida, Virginia Tech, Oregon State (twice), Michigan, Kansas State, Colorado, Ole Miss, Iowa State, UConn and Pitt.

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