Vikings make strides physically and in their ability to stop the run
Portland State's 29-20 victory over Sacramento State two weeks ago made a big statement: The Vikings' defense is not the same as in years past.
Against Sac State, the Vikings' normally potent pistol offense, which leads the Big Sky in rushing, committed two second-quarter turnovers that handed the Hornets 14 points.
During the Jerry Glanville era, offensive struggles usually led to a loss at Portland State, which ranked at or near the bottom of the conference in total defense. Against the Hornets, though, the Vikings made strong defensive stands and didn't allow the Sacramento State offense to gain any momentum.
'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,' PSU coach Nigel Burton says.
With opponents averaging only 3.7 yards per carry, Portland State has the top-ranked rush defense in the Big Sky - up from ninth (last) in 2010. PSU has allowed 123.6 yards per game on the ground; last year, the Viks gave up 232.9.
In each victory this year, the 7-3 Vikings have held opponents to fewer than 30 points, something they did only twice last season.
An improved defense -which features seven senior starters -has undoubtedly been a factor in Portland State's reemergence in its second year under Burton. With a 23-17 win at Northern Colorado last Saturday, the Vikings extended their win streak to four and found themselves in the Football Championship Subdivision top-25 (they're No. 25) for the first time since week one of the 2007 season.
'I think we've made huge strides physically,' says linebacker Ryan Rau, a 6-1, 230-pound senior from Folsom, Calif., who leads the team in tackles (78) for the third consecutive year. 'We've made a huge improvement and statement to this town, and I think we just need to keep doing exactly what we're doing.'
What's been the difference this year?
It isn't a new defensive scheme, training regimen or talented recruiting class. Instead, linebackers coach Ahmed Zarrugh says, it's been the commitment by the players to their '1/11th' - a mantra all the coaches use to remind each of the 11 players on the field to do his job.
To succeed, defensive players must stay disciplined and focus on their responsibilities, trusting the other players to do the same.
'They've taken it upon themselves to become leaders,' Zarrugh says. 'They hold themselves accountable. It's been the difference, and we've seen the results.'
Zarrugh says the players also have a better understanding of the defensive scheme, which switched from a 3-4 formation after Burton replaced Jerry Glanville.
Similar to in-state big brother Oregon, the Vikings consider themselves a team that can fly to the ball on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Last season, speed came mainly on offense, with the likes of quarterback Connor Kavanaugh, running back Cory McCaffrey and the rush-heavy pistol. This season, the discipline shown by the defense has allowed players to utilize their quickness and has developed a more balanced team.
'If the offense is struggling, the defense will help out,' Rau says. 'If the defense is struggling, the offense will help us out. We're a team that works together.'
The defense still has room for improvement, however. Against the pass, the Vikings rank last in conference, giving up 276 yards per game (up from 231.2 per game a year ago). The ranking might not be as bad as it seems, as the Viks are fifth in the conference in pass defense efficiency. Opponents have completed 54.4 percent of their passes for 6.9 yards per attempt and 16 touchdowns; in 2010, the Viks gave up 54.8 percent for 8.7 yards per throw and 27 TDs.
Still, going into the 1 p.m. Saturday regular-season finale against Weber State at Jeld-Wen Field, the defense needs to get better at preventing big plays.
A possible berth in the 20-team FCS playoffs is riding on that, and more, as PSU (third in the Big Sky at 4-3) takes on the Wildcats (4-6, 4-3), who have won four straight in the series and who will see 72-year-old coach Ron McBride retire after the game.
'We've still got some guys who make excuses,' Zarrugh says of the defense giving up long gainers and big plays. 'If you make excuses, your behavior will never be corrected.'