Burton says Vikings are learning how to win
If Nigel Burton can put Portland State on the map in the city's sporting landscape, he could probably find work teaching Helen Keller in 'The Miracle Worker.'
The last time the Vikings were relevant was 1995, when Tim Walsh's third team went 8-5 and made the national Division II quarterfinals.
Or maybe it was 1992, the last of Pokey Allen's celebrated seven-year run, when PSU was 9-4 and reached the D-II semis.
Since Portland State moved to Division I-AA in 1996, few have noticed what is going on with football in the Park Blocks.
Burton is trying to change that.
'When you win, you matter,' PSU's second-year coach says. 'I plan on us winning a lot of games and championships here.'
Brash talk, especially at a place where such things just don't happen.
Portland State last won as many as eight games in 2000 and earned its last conference title in 1992, Allen's final season.
PSU won nine of 33 games under Burton's predecessor, Jerry Glanville, and went 2-9 last year in Burton's first season.
But the Vikings, who lost games by two, three and five points a year ago, have all but three starters back from last year's squad.
Some of the returnees have been beaten out by players Burton recruited who are better.
And the Vikings are 2-0 for the first time since 2006 going into Saturday's breather against 20th-ranked D-I power Texas Christian at Fort Worth, Texas.
'I'm really pleased with where we're at,' says Burton, at 35 one of the nation's youngest D-I head coaches.
Portland State opened with a blowout win over Southern Oregon, then got by Northern Arizona 31-29 in the Big Sky Conference opener at Jeld-Wen Field last Saturday.
The Vikings blocked a 41-yard field-goal attempt on the final play that would have won it for the Lumberjacks.
'You have to learn how to win those close ones,' Burton says.
Portland State's talent seems better. The facilities - including Jeld-Wen, the coaching offices and team conference rooms - have been upgraded. Burton, whose last coaching stop was as defensive coordinator at Nevada, is an aggressive and ambitious leader blessed with a keen football mind.
The Vikings employ the run-oriented pistol offense Burton learned during his time with the Wolfpack, with shifty Connor Kavanaugh at quarterback and plucky Cory McCaffrey at tailback.
McCaffrey, who carried 30 times for 222 yards against Northern Arizona, has seven TDs rushing the first two games. Kavanaugh rushed for 134 yards but threw for only 66 - with several dropped passes - versus the Lumberjacks.
'We know we have talent at receiver,' Burton says. 'We have to make sure guys execute better, but we're pleased with Connor's ability to get the ball to people.'
Northern Arizona gained 323 yards through the air but only 79 on the ground. The Vikings, meanwhile, rushed for 361 yards. Put in perspective, the Lumberjacks hadn't allowed as many as 200 yards rushing in 25 games - since Arizona reached that mark in September 2009. The last D-I-AA opponent to rush for 200 on them was Montana in November 2008.
'If we can run against (the Lumberjacks),' Burton says, 'there are probably not too many teams we can't run against.'
Burton believes a program's transformation comes in phases.
'At first, we were used to not being close,' he says. 'We got them used to being close, but we lost some of those games. Now we're learning how to win close games. The final step is to put people away and put them away early.'
Probably won't happen Saturday at Fort Worth against the 2011 Rose Bowl champions.
The Horned Frogs 'are extremely fast,' Burton says. 'On offense, they give you so many variables. They remind me of Boise State. They do so many things out of so many different looks, you're going to give up touchdowns just because of miscommunications.'
Over the years, Portland State is 2-26 against D-I opponents. Burton - mindful of Oregon State's pratfall against Big Sky member Sacramento State a couple of weeks ago - prefers to focus on the '2.'
'There was a time when we went to Hawaii and beat a nationally ranked team (2000),' the PSU coach says. 'There was a time when we went to New Mexico and beat (the Lobos, 2006). We need to get the game into the fourth quarter and see what happens.'
The Vikings' mindset seems different than it was when Burton arrived on campus.
'Before it was, 'Hey, we think we can,' " he says. 'The kids would trust you to a point. Now, it's, 'We know we can.' "
Winning a Big Sky title is a tall order. Eastern Washington is the defending national champion, but Montana beat the Eagles last Saturday. Montana State beat the Grizzlies last year. Idaho State is better than anyone expected.
'Who's the gimme?' Burton asks. 'It's insane. Never been involved in a conference that looks this competitive with everybody.'
The announced crowd of 5,479 at Jeld-Wen last Saturday is a reflection of the low level of interest in Burton's program. If the Vikings can roll up some victories, that could change.
'There was probably a time when Oregon State and Oregon didn't matter, either,' Burton says. 'I don't wish any ill will toward Beaver or Duck fans, but I wouldn't mind getting back to the city caring what Portland State did first.'
Sorry, Nigel; that's never been the case.
A strong third, however, would serve just fine.