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Vikings regroup with eyes on finishing strong

PSU's confidence far from shaken by close loss to Bobcats

Rebuilding a football program that won a combined four games during the past two seasons was never going to be easy.

Portland State found that out last Saturday against the No. 3 Montana State Bobcats. Mounting a fourth-quarter comeback, the Vikings came oh-so-close to a momentous victory before losing 38-36 after they were stopped on a two-point conversion late in the game.

Some people would call the loss heartbreaking. Vikings running back Cory McCaffrey prefers to look at it as just one more stepping stone to get the Viks where they want to be.

'It was a tough loss,' McCaffrey says. 'But it shows us how good we really are. It was almost more of a confidence builder.'

The Vikings (3-2, 2-1 Big Sky) are not yet a well-oiled machine. They are prone to debilitating penalties and giving up big plays on defense.

'The message to them (this week) is you played well enough to win (against Montana State), but in order to beat a team of that quality, you can't get in your way,' says Vikings coach Nigel Burton, as PSU prepares for a trip to Missoula. 'We still made too many errors, had too many penalties to win that ballgame. We've got to get that addressed if we're going to have a chance to win at Montana.'

There are still plenty of bright spots for the Vikings, though, as they get ready to face the Grizzlies and move into the second half of their season.

Portland State has been stellar on the ground, ranking third in the nation with 292.8 yards per game. Part of the team's success running the ball can be chalked up to the run-oriented pistol offense. But senior quarterback Connor Kavanaugh also gives credit to the offensive line.

'I know we ran it great last year, and we pretty much did not lose a guy on the offensive line,' Kavanaugh says. 'I knew if we executed that we'd do the stuff we're doing right now.'

Running behind that offensive line, senior McCaffrey is cementing himself as a star. The 5-9, 185 pound back is leading the nation in both rushing and scoring. He has 628 yards (157 per game) and 12 touchdowns on 97 carries.

Although he shattered Oregon high school rushing records at Sisters High, even McCaffrey is surprised to be leading the nation in rushing.

'I knew we'd do big things. But I wasn't expecting anything like that,' he says.

With the lethal ground attack, the Vikings have allowed themselves to become somewhat on unbalanced offense, however. Kavanaugh is rushing for 103.8 yards per game, while throwing for 89.2 yards per outing. As long as the results are good, though, Kavanaugh says he doesn't care whether he is running or passing.

'I'm happy when we win,' he says. 'I'm not saying that just to say it. At this point in my career, I don't care if I don't throw the ball one time or I don't run the ball one time. If we win, I'm good with it.'

While the Vikings are averaging 34.8 points per game, they are also giving up 31.4, and 358.6 yards per contest.

At times, the defense has been dominant. But then it gives up a big play, and all of the previous effort is inconsequential.

'It's something like 40 percent of the yards we've given up all season have come on 11 plays,' Burton says. 'And the worst part is it's a lapse of focus. The difference between a defense being good and a defense being great is consistency. And the way you improve consistency is to not give up big plays.'

Defensive tackle Myles Wade says the Vikings 'can be the No. 1 defense in the nation if we want to be.' To do that, Wade wants the unit to remain composed, never get comfortable and have fun.

'I want to see people having fun,' Wade says. 'I don't think we're really having that much fun on defense. Football is a serious game. Everything is serious. But we need to keep it fun.

'We've been doing this since we were little boys because it was fun. No one put a gun to our heads when we were little kids saying 'you're going to play football.' We did it because we figured it was going to be a fun game to play. So we all just have to make this fun.'

PSU is still in a good position to make the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. The Big Sky usually gets two teams and sometimes three teams into the 20-team playoff. The Vikings probably need to win out, or close to it. And knocking off No. 11 Montana (4-2 overall, 3-1 Big Sky) in Missoula would give them recognition they apparently are lacking, as they are 35th in this week's FCS coaches rankings, three spots behind the Big Sky's Sacramento State. And, if Montana State slips up along the way, the conference title could be up for grabs.

Each week, the Vikings will try to remain focused on their next opponent. They know the rewards of finishing the rebuilding process.

'You can't worry about three games from now, you've got to take it week by week,' Burton says. 'But the goal that this team has set for itself is to be a contender for (the Big Sky championship), and it's just one of those things in the back of their mind that they know they're still capable of.'