Penalties and mistakes slow potent PSU offense
Although Portland State's 29-20 win Saturday over Sacramento State wasn't always fun to watch, the victory guaranteed the Vikings their first winning season since 2006.
Now 4-2 in the Big Sky Conference, the Vikings sit in third place behind Montana State (7-0) and Montana (6-1) and continue to keep their national playoff hopes alive.
The Vikings led for the entire game, but a number of costly penalties and turnovers slowed its normally potent pistol offense down, forcing the defensive unit to step up and lock down Sacramento State's passing game.
'When the offense sputters and basically scores 14 points for the other team, and the defense doesn't even blink an eye - that was what was key to this victory today,' said Vikings quarterback Connor Kavanaugh.
The first half saw the Vikings more than double the total yards of the visiting Hornets, gaining 111 yards more through the air. Portland State's defense forced five punts and held Sacramento Sate to only three first downs. Critical turnovers by the Vikings allowed its opponents to stay in the game, however.
After going three-and-out on its first possession, the Vikings scored the game's first points midway through the first quarter with a 30-yard touchdown run by Willie Griffin. The 5-9, 195-pound back was hardly touched on his way to the end zone.
'Once I heard the play call, and I saw how the defense was lined up, I envisioned how I was going to break up the middle, and it worked out,' said Griffin, who rushed for a career high 92 yards.
Sacramento State, unable to get anything going on offense, went three-and-out for a second time, giving Portland State another opportunity to score. Kavanaugh made two 20-yard passes to put the Vikings in the red zone, but two chop block penalties unhinged the team's promising drive. Kicker Zach Brown hit a 46-yard field goal to make the score 9-0 with four minutes left in the first quarter.
After forcing Sacramento State to punt again, Portland State looked to gain a commanding lead in the second quarter. Kavanaugh threw a pass that was tipped, however, and Hornets corner Kyle Monson took a 24-yard interception back for a touchdown, giving Sacramento State its first six points.
'I just threw a high ball and it bounced off the receiver's hands, and the cornerback made a nice play,' Kavanaugh said. 'I just got to get the ball down, set my feet, deliver a nice pass and that stuff won't happen.'
Determined to overcome his mistake, Kavanaugh led his team 63 yards down field for a touchdown, putting the Vikings up 16-6 with eight minutes left in the half. The drive, which culminated in a 16-yard touchdown pass to Robert Truax, showed poise by the senior quarterback.
'We put him in so many situations in practice, so he knows how to pull himself out of it. It speaks to the character of the kid and the character of this football team,' head coach Nigel Burton said after the game.
Don't worry about it
Once again, though, turnovers made the Vikings pay, as Kavanaugh fumbled the snap near his own goal line, setting up a 1-yard touchdown rush by Hornets quarterback Jeff Fleming. Fleming's two-point conversion pass to wide receiver John Hendershott was good, cutting the deficit to only two points before halftime.
'The message was, 'Offense, don't worry about it. You've had the defense's back how many games in a row? Let them repay you for all of it. They believe in you,' ' Burton said when asked what he said to the team at halftime.
Portland State's defense continued to look strong at the beginning of the second half, sacking Fleming during what seemed to be a potential scoring drive and forcing another Sacramento State punt - its sixth of the game.
'Watching our defense grow and say, 'No problem, we got your back. We'll take the game over' - I think that's what great teams do,' Burton said.
The Vikings took to the ground, using Griffin and backup running back Shaquille Richard heavily to dwindle down the clock and march down the field to set up a 45-yard field goal by Brown, giving Portland State a 19-14 lead. Of the 11 plays of the 65-yard drive, almost all were rushing plays.
With three minutes left in the third quarter, the Vikings defense once again disallowed Sacramento State to gain any sort of momentum, sacking Fleming for the fourth time in the game. Portland State's offense took over and finally showed the efficiency of the pistol system, as Kavanaugh kept the ball after a sneaky misdirection for a 28-yard touchdown, extending the Vikings lead to 26-14.
Sacramento showed signs of life at the begging of the fourth quarter with Fleming scoring on an eight-yard touchdown run after leading the Hornets down field. Fleming was only able to achieve success on the ground, though, rushing for more yards than passing for. Burton attributes this to the growth of the team's defensive ends.
'All those situations that we practice time after time have finally gotten to those guys to the point where it's second nature and they understand now, where as maybe last year they were still figuring it out,' Burton said.
Special teams for Portland State struck right back, as Jason Diniz took a kickoff back for 60 yards to the Vikings 10-yard line. A false start penalty hindered the drive, however, and forced Brown to once again try a field goal from beyond 45 yards - this time he missed.
After forcing a turnover on downs, the Vikings caught the Sacramento State defense off guard with a left sideline pass complete by Kavanaugh to Justin Monahan for 57 yards. Kavanaugh started throwing down field much more in the second half because of Sacramento State's strategy of stacking the box - an approach teams often use against pistol-system offenses.
'Teams for whatever reason think they've figured out the pistol, but once they load up the box and force us to do some things, we have a guy who can sling it,' Burton said. 'It's becoming even more of a scary offense when receivers can make plays like that.'
Although the offense was unable to score a touchdown, Brown was able to convert this time, extending the lead to nine, 29-20, with 11 minutes left in the game.
The Portland State defense ended the game when DeShawn Shead, who finished the game with a team-high eight tackles, intercepted Jeff Fleming's middle endzone pass with one minute left.
Burton said the victory adds to the mantra he's trying to build at Portland State, which, he said, is built on self-assurance.
'We want to get this program to the point where we win because we're confident, and we're confident because we're winning,' Burton said.