The Portland State Vikings made a big splash last year, going to Pullman and beating Washington State 24-17 to start their season on a high note. From there, PSU would go on to win eight more games before getting bounced in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
The non-conference part of college football has been a blood bath so far, showcasing outstanding upsets as if they were routine. Let’s take a look at some of the players that will try to add Washington to the list of teams that didn't see a loss coming.
Players to Watch
#7 SR 6’0” 190-pound QB Alex Kuresa
2016 stats: 26 of 48 for 357 yards, 54.2% completion, 3 TD, 3 INT, 26 carries for 152 yards, 5.8 YPC, 1 TD
Scoop: The path to calling signals for the Vikings was an arduous one for senior quarterback Alex Kuresa. After signing with BYU and playing a couple of years as a receiver, he transferred to Snow College and started at quarterback. Then, posting a solid 25:9 TD:INT ratio, Kuresa transferred to Portland State prior to the start of the 2015 season. He secured the starting job and led the Vikings to a nine win season and a birth into the FCS playoffs. As a senior, he’ll look to continue beyond the second round of the playoffs this year. Kuresa is a dual-threat quarterback for sure, and may even be more dangerous running the ball. Whether he’s tucking it on an option, pulling it down and taking off when nothing is open, or extending plays by scrambling, Kuresa is a handful to bring down. Keeping him contained and not allowing him to create big yardage from broken plays will be a priority for the Huskies.
#2 SR 6’1” 210-pound QB/RB Paris Penn
2016 stats: 19 carries for 164 yards, 8.6 YPC, 36 long, 5 receptions for 30 yards, 6.0 YPC, 2 total TD
Scoop: The epitome of versatility, Paris Penn can hurt you in a variety of ways. He’s still listed as a quarterback on the team website, but was also named the second running back on this week's PSU depth chart. He leads the Vikings in rushing yards this season, picking up over eight yards each time he carries the rock. He has speed to burn and great athleticism. He averaged five touches a game last year, scoring five total touchdowns. This year, his usage per game has doubled, giving him more opportunities to shake things up.
#25 SR 5’11” 215-pound RB Nate Tago
2016 stats: 35 carries for 159 yards, 4.5 YPC, 3 TD, 4 receptions for 61 yards, 15.2 YPC
Scoop: Tago is a powerful, workhorse back. Lining up eight yards deep in the pistol, he runs downhill and uses his size and strength to pick up yards. As a senior, he finally has his grip on the starting job and will look to make a big difference in the Vikings run-heavy attack.
#88 JR 6’2” 235-pound TE /WR Maximo Espitia
2016 stats: 6 receptions for 131 yards, 21.8 YPC, 1 TD
Scoop: Maximo Espitia has began his career at Cal in 2012, playing 19 games in two seasons for the Bears. He spent time on both sides of the ball as a Golden Bear, where he was originally recruited to play a fullback or tight end type of role. After not playing in 2014 or 2015, he has made a big impact on his new team in 2016, leading the Vikings in receptions and receiving yards. His size and athleticism make him more of an impact in the passing game than just a safety valve.
#99 JR 6’3” 255-pound DE Davond Dade
2016 stats: 9 total tackles, 1 blocked kick
Scoop: Dade slowly but surely worked his way into a starting role last year, finally getting put atop the depth chart for the final five games. He made the most of his opportunity, going onto lead the team in sacks with six. Now, with more game reps under his belt and another offseason of improvement, the Vikings will look to him to supply pass rush off the edge.
#54 SR 5’11” 235-pound LB Anthony McNichols
2016 stats: 18 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 sacks
Scoop: He transferred to Portland State before the 2014 after spending his first two years playing at Golden West Community College. His first two years as a Viking have been cut short by injury, playing in just seven games the last two years. He was able to retain a year of eligibility as a result of his injuries and has made a huge impact early on. He leads his team in tackles and sacks, easing the departure of Jeremy Lutali.
#38 SR 5’11” 190-pound CB Xavier Coleman
2016 stats: 6 total tackles
Scoop: The graduation of Aaron Sibley leaves Xavier Coleman as his squad's lockdown corner. This kid is really easy to root for, having recovered from heart surgery in high school, according to his Portland State biography. He’s a hometown kid who attended Jesuit High School in Portland, and has been an important fixture in the secondary since the day he arrived on campus. With more than 25 starts under his belt, Coleman is the leader of a secondary that lost two very talented pieces last season.
#15 JR 6’1” 195-pound FS Tyler Foreman
2016 stats: 14 total tackles, 3 pass breakups
Scoop: A highly touted recruit out of Southern California, Foreman spent his first two years of college at UCLA. However, after only playing two games, he transferred to Portland State. He spent his first year as a Viking behind Patrick Onwuasor on the depth chart. Now that he’s finally a starter, he’s made an immediate impact. He’s second on the team in tackles and first in pass breakups. Foreman plays aggressively, making plays in the pass game and assists in helping the run.
What does the Viking offense look like?
Portland State’s unique pistol offense is unlike anything Coach Petersen has faced as the Washington head coach. The pistol formation, with the quarterback lined up about four yards deep in the backfield and the tailback an additional four yards or so deep, is incredibly versatile, employing advantages in both shotgun and under-center formations.
That being said, Portland State relies heavily on the variety of looks it provides running the football. Their primary back, Nate Tago, is a heavy, powerful runner who benefits from lining up eight yards deep. And a quarterback as athletic as Alex Kuresa and a utility man in Paris Penn, the Vikings have a true triple threat on the ground.
Through two games, Alex Kuresa is averaging 24 pass attempts per game, a sizable uptick from the 19 passes he averaged per outing last year. It’s a small sample size, so those numbers could regress back to last season’s standard - but there is reason to believe the Vikings are giving him more liberty to throw the ball this year.
David Jones, a 1100 yard rush last season, graduated, possibly compelling PSU Head Coach Bruce Barnum to rely more on his senior quarterback.
Also, an influx talent at tight end and receiver doesn’t hurt. Chris Seisay and Maximo Espitia, who spent the beginning of their careers at Oregon and California respectively, join Trent Riley, who played at UNLV as a freshman, as former FBS pass catchers now playing at PSU.
Portland State has respectable experience and talent upfront, returning three starters along the offensive line. They filled the holes in their line by going out and getting two Mountain West transfers, Tyshon Mosley, who started nine games for Utah State in 2015, and former Boise State big man Troy Bacon.
Combine eight returning starters with added talent from the FBS level and a system as unique as the pistol, and you have yourself one heck of an exciting offense. They’re a force to be reckoned with at the FCS level, and have the horsepower to surprise a complacent FBS power conference team.
What does the Viking defense look like?
Their depth chart lists four linemen with their hands on the ground, followed by two linebackers, a nickel back, and four defensive backs.
Their defensive line is smallest the Huskies have faced yet, but that hasn’t kept them from finding their way through opponents’ offensive lines, racking up 12 tackles for a loss and five sacks in just two games. Davond Dade was dangerous off the edge last season, garnering six sacks while starting only five games.
Early this season, middle linebacker Anthony McNichols has been the playmaker for Portland State, leading the team in tackles and sacks. Free safety Tyler Foreman, who is the replacement for last year’s leader in interceptions Patrick Onwuasor, is the only other Viking with more than 10 tackles.
The addition of Chris Hayes, a transfer from Arizona State, will bolster a secondary that lost three starters. Xavier Coleman adds experience and leadership to there group, bringing second team All-Conference honors and 26 starts to the table.
Chris Petersen said in his Monday press conference that Portland State and Rutgers have structural similarities defensively. Left tackle Trey Adams confirmed this in an interview Wednesday, but reminded us that every team has their different looks and different blitzes.
With that in mind, it’s fair to expect some aggressive play from the Viking safeties, both of which are solid in run support. Film from the opener against Rutgers might deter their assertiveness, but Washington showed last week that going too far in the opposite direction is ill-advised.
The defense has some talent, but has struggled early this season, giving up 46 points per game so far. They surrendered 66 points this past weekend courtesy of former Dawg Deontae Cooper and San Jose State. Their 250-plus yards allowed on the ground per game doesn’t help their cause much, and neither does the fact they have yet to force a turnover.
Keys to the game
1. Come out guns a-blazing - This team has shown some fourth quarter fight, coming from behind to beat Central Washington and turning a 38 point deficit into just 24 at one point against San Jose State. With a tendency to play well later in games, keeping it competitive with the Huskies early could make this interesting.
2. Discourage Washington’s run rhythm - The Huskies haven’t found their groove running the ball, handing the ball to Myles Gaskin only 27 times through two games. Further disrupting that rhythm could lead to a slow start for the Huskies similar to the one they had against Idaho.
3. Take advantage of opportunities - Scott Eklund picked Jojo McIntosh’s forced fumble as the play of the game in last weekend's showdown with the Vandals. Had Idaho held onto the ball, punched it in, and tied it up at seven, that game could have had a much different tone.
1. Don’t be late - It’s hard to complain about a 59-14 victory, but the first quarter of last week’s game felt uncomfortable. Another late start against a quirkier offense could put Washington in a little more trouble than they faced last time out.
2. Get Gaskin going - Portland state is surrendering 266.5 yards a game on the ground this year. Former Husky Deontae Cooper had a big day against the Vikings last week. Maybe it’s finally Gaskin’s turn to get things rolling.
3. Play keep away - Washington has forced six turnovers in two games, while the Vikings have yet to force one. Advantage Huskies. Creating more opportunities for Jake Browning and the offense to get rolling while limiting Portland State’s chances of shaking things up with their pistol offense could be what ultimately leads to the luxury of another second half full of younger players getting more game reps.