Portland State's 36-10 win over Division-III Willamette Saturday night at Jeld-Wen Field was the Vikings' second win this season against an opponent from a lower division (the first came 52-0 over Southern Oregon).
Regardless of the opponent, though, the win before an crowd of 5,491 at Jeld-Wen Field meant something special to the PSU football program. The Vikings have won four games this season - as many as they had won in the last two years combined.
'I know this program is on the way up,' Vikings quarterback Connor Kavanaugh said. 'When we win a game by 26 points and guys in the locker room are disappointed by some of the plays they made, that means that we're striving for perfection.
'That just tells me that guys want to get better, which is the number one deal. We're trying to create a program here that holds us up to the highest set of values.'
Portland State's next game will not be so easy. The Vikings (4-3, 2-2 Big Sky) will travel to Eastern Washington to face the defending FCS national champions. Despite the convincing score against Willamette (3-4), the Vikings turned the ball over twice and had 12 penalties for 104 yards.
'We need to start perfecting the game,' Kavanaugh said. 'Too many dumb mistakes here, dumb mistakes there, penalties and stuff that we can't do against good football teams in the Big Sky and win. It's about getting better each day.'
The Vikings played without running back Cory McCaffrey, who was lost for the season last week against Montana with an Achilles' tendon injury. The Vikings still gained 485 yards of offense, relying on Kavanaugh throwing more often and 5-9, 175-pound true freshman running back Shaquille Richard.
In one half of work, Kavanaugh was 9 of 12 passing for 162 yards and three touchdowns. While PSU aired it out more than usual, Vikings coach Nigel Burton said that the loss of McCaffrey does not mean that Portland State will go away from their run-oriented pistol offense. Rather, the 6-0, 185-pound Kavanaugh was called upon to pass more often because of the looks Willamette was giving the offense.
'It was just what they gave us,' Burton said. 'They did a lot of cover zero, bring six, seven, eight, one-on-ones on the outside on receivers, and that's what you do, you throw it. We're still going to (run) read zone.
We're still going to do all of the things that we do.'
Richard carried 22 times for 85 yards and one TD, while catching another TD.
'I was pretty much just trying to fill the shoes of Cory,' Richard said. 'I wanted to execute my plays, do everything the coaches asked me to do. Not do too much or anything. I got the job done.'
The Vikings also got contributions on the ground from Willie Griffin (10 carries for 61 yards), Kavanaugh (five carries for 44 yards) and Justin Lilley (six carries for 33 yards).
'Shaq will be a great one one day,' Burton said. 'This is why you're glad you have Willie Griffins and Justin Lillys.'
The Bearcats began the game by fumbling on their own 43-yard line on their first series. Richard made them pay, scoring a 3-yard TD on a counter up the middle.
'The lineman blocked pretty well on that play,' Richard said. 'It was a play to the left side of the field, and it opened up, so I just took it.'
Portland State went up 13-0 when Kavanaugh hit Nevin Lewis for a 39-yard TD.
'Nevin's got unbelievable speed,' Kavanaugh said. 'He was just running a seam route, I hit him right in the hole, right in front of the safety. He made a great catch and cut back right across the field. He's a great athlete, so he's going to get into the end zone.'
Willamette then failed on a fake punt from its 19. The Vikings nearly blew the opportunity when kicker Zach Brown missed a 38-yard field goal. The Bearcats were flagged for running into the kicker, though, and Brown connected on a 33-yarder to put the Vikings up 16-0 at the end of the first quarter.
With 13:50 remaining in the first half, Kavanaugh threw a 20-yard TD pass to Justin Monahan.
'Just a great catch, making the quarterback look good,' Kavanaugh said. 'Just throwing it up and him climbing the ladder and going to get it.'
Willamette finally got on the board when Mitch Rowan split the uprights on a 33-yard field goal.
The Bearcats would not score again until 8:39 remaining in the fourth quarter. Brian Widing ran in a 9-yard TD on a quarterback draw against the Vikings' reserve defense.
Besides the two scores, Portland State's defense was solid throughout the night, allowing Willamette 212 yards of offense.
'They're a fly-sweep team, so it's really hard to follow the ball,' Vikings linebacker Ryan Rau said. 'You don't want to try to key the ball. Each individual person on defense had their own man to key. We just had to do our jobs and make sure that we all do our 1/11th and make sure they don't get any yards on us. We did a pretty good job today, but we could've done better.'
Portland State went into halftime up 29-3 after Kavanaugh was flushed from the pocket, scrambled, dodged tackles, and finally found Richard for a 7-yard TD.
'It was a broken-down play,' Richard said. 'I was happy that I saw Connor scramble over my way. I had to get open and find a window, and he threw it to me.'
The Vikings scored their last touchdown with 11:07 remaining in the third quarter. Filling in for Kavanaugh, backup quarterback Drew Hubel threw a 22-yard pass to Kalua Noa, who made an over-the-shoulder catch in the end zone.
'They brought an all-out blitz, and we got in behind the safeties, and (Noa) made a nice play on the ball,' said Hubel, who finished 3 of 8 passing with one TD and an interception.
Burton wants the Vikings to enjoy Saturday's win, know that they could have played better and prepare themselves for a battle in Cheney, Wash., next week.
'Sundays after you win, the birds chirp a little bit louder, the sun shines a little brighter,' Burton said. 'We've got to go back to work, enjoy it tonight, bury it and let's get ready to go to Cheney.'
NOTES: Vikings defensive tackle Myles Wade left the game after sustaining a lower leg injury on the last play of the first half. After the game, he hobbled off the field on crutches with a boot on his left foot. 'They've got him in a boot, precautionary,' Burton said. 'But I think we're all right. I think so. But ..."