Portland State opens Big Sky season with 31-29 victory
Portland State played well enough to win Saturday - and Northern Arizona played badly enough in the final seconds to lose.
It would have been the kind of heart-wrenching defeat the Vikings have had too many of in recent seasons, if NAU had been able to make a field goal in the waning moments.
But the Lumberjacks, out of timeouts, elected to run the ball on its next-to-last offensive-unit play and then spike the ball with 12 seconds left to stop the clock, leaving kicker Matt Myers with a 41-yard attempt at Jeld-Wen Field.
Myers' kick was makable, but his boot was low and curled just wide left - enough for PSU's bench to dance onto the field with seven seconds left and not have to worry about the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
It wasn't a waltz, but it was a hard-earned, 31-29 win by a Vikings team that says it can beat anyone in the Big Sky Conference.
Next up: a nonleague game/payday at Texas Christian on Saturday, Sept. 24.
"We're actually looking to beat them, too, to tell you the truth," said PSU's standout safety, DeShawn Shead.
The win over NAU was huge enough, as it gave PSU a 1-0 record in the Big Sky and gave the Vikings a 2-0 overall start - and as many wins as they totaled in each of the past two seasons.
"I feel like this year's team is going to be different," Shead said.
On Saturday, the Vikings looked like they don't have any seriously weak links. They have some things to work on, of course, and some areas are obviously stronger than others. But against the 'Jacks, Portland State showed a dynamic ability to run, an improved run defense and solid special teams.
The big stars were running back Cory McCaffrey and quarterback Connor Kavanaugh, who combined for 356 yards on the ground.
McCaffrey scored four touchdowns before cramps, bruises and swelling took him to the sidelines late in the game.
"I'm pretty beat up," he said, "but nothing too serious. I should be back for TCU."
McCaffrey missed his single-game career record by four yards. He ran 30 times for 222 yards. He scored on carries from the 33, 3, 18 and 8.
"Cory played fantastic," Kavanaugh said. "He's just a tough kid."
"He was him," Vikings coach Nigel Burton said.
Kavanaugh went the distance at quarterback. He carried 16 times for 134 yards and a game-high 8.4 yards per carry.
He said he, too, felt confident all the way, even while watching NAU line up for the field goal for the win.
"Yeah, it brought back some bad memories, but this is a whole new team," Kavanaugh said. "We've been preparing from day one for situations like that."
The Portland State defense had some starring moments, too. Three times in the second half, it stiffened just in time to hold NAU to field goals instead of touchdowns.
"Our red-zone defense is pretty good," Burton said.
The Lumberjacks ran for only 79 yards (2.4 per carry), while passing for 323.
"The defense did a great job stuffing the run, forcing them to be one-dimensional," Burton said.
Defensive back Donte Almond made a key play, intercepting a Northern Arizona pass at the PSU 11 with 6:21 left in the game.
"It was enormous," Burton said. "If he doesn't get that pick, they kick a field goal, and they win."
Linebacker Ryan Rau had a team-high 12 tackles, including a 17-yard sack.
The special teams blocked a punt, and may have got a piece of Myers' try for the win. And old reliable kicker Zach Brown made a 40-yard field goal on his only attempt.
"Our guys deserved to win that game," Burton said. "It just wouldn't have been right if they didn't."
Shortcomings for the Vikings included some pass-interference penalties - the officials "were calling it pretty tight, and we didn't adjust," Burton said. Also, the secondary didn't tackle quite as well as the front seven, and the offense managed just 66 yards and two first downs through the air - with Kavanaugh 0 for 2 in the second half.
"We knew it wasn't going to be a blowout," Kavanaugh said.
NAU fell to 1-2, with its other loss to Arizona 41-10 and its win over Fort Lewis 58-13.
The Vikings will return to Big Sky action Oct. 1, when they visit Idaho State. After that will come pivotal conference showdowns Oct. 8 at home against Montana State and Oct. 15 at Montana. If all goes well for PSU, the regular-season finale against Weber State Nov. 19 at Jeld-Wen Field could have important ramifications.
Also Saturday, Montana beat defending national champion Eastern Washington 17-14, Montana State took care of Minot State 43-7, Weber State got a big home win over Sacramento State 49-17, and surprising Idaho State tore into visiting Northern Colorado 50-20.
Next week's Big Sky slate includes Montana at Sac State, which beat Oregon State in its opening game.
"The Big Sky is a tough conference," Shead said. "It can go either way in this league - somebody can win big one week and lose big the next."
But right now, the Vikings have the attitude of a winner.
"We were having fun," McCaffrey said, of Saturday's game before an announced crowd of 5,479.
The team, he said, came into the game thinking, 'We don't need to be tense. It's a party on the field."