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Progress on the Park Blocks, as Viks tie for third

Pieces came together in second season of Burton’s building plan
by: COURTESY OF PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY 
Connor Kavanaugh finished his Portland State career last week, after leading the Vikings to a 7-4 record and setting records for rushing by a PSU and Big Sky Conference quarterback.

On the podium outside Portland State coach Nigel Burton’s office sits a sign that reads: “Future Location of the Big Sky Conference Championship Trophy.” Portland State did not bring home the trophy this season, but after two consecutive 2-9 seasons, the Vikings discovered what it was like to come together, play as a team and win more than they lost. Although they fell short of the FCS playoffs, they tied for third in the Big Sky and were 7-4 overall. It was the best season record for PSU since the 7-4 mark of 2006, and the Vikings’ 5-3 conference record was their finest since they went 6-2 in ’06, the final year under coach Tim Walsh. While Burton has set his expectations even higher, the results this year showed that the Vikings have made a good start toward replacing his sign with a trophy. “I feel good,” says Burton, who has coached the past two seasons at Portland State. “We took another step in the right direction. We’re nowhere near our final step, but it’s kind of like golf —as long as the ball is moving forward, you can only be so upset.” Even in the four losses, there were highlights. Before being blown out 55-13 on the road by 2011 Rose Bowl champion TCU, Portland State took a 3-0 lead into the second quarter and kept the score knotted 3-3 until just under two minutes remaining in the first half. In key Big Sky games, the Vikings were a two-point conversion away from tying Montana State in a 38-36 loss and led late in losses at Montana (30-24) and home to Weber State in the season finale (48-33). “I wouldn’t measure our success by the wins and loses this year, but more by what we’ve overcome,” senior quarterback Connor Kavanaugh says. “Taking Montana and Montana State down to the last few minutes of the game, it just shows you how close Portland State is to becoming a top-10 team in the country.” Montana knocked off Montana State 36-10 in Bozeman last week to vault into a tie for first place in the conference at 7-1. Both teams will open the playoffs at home Dec. 3 with second-round games, Montana State (9-2) against New Hampshire (8-3) and Montana (9-2) versus Tennessee Tech (7-3) or Central Arkansas (8-3). Portland State shared third in the Big Sky with Eastern Washington and Weber State. The Viks beat EWU 42-26. Weber State got the win over PSU but fell to Eastern Washington 27-21. Northern Arizona and Sacramento State tied for sixth with 3-5 conference records, Idaho State was 1-7 and Northern Colorado went 0-8. The biggest obstacle the Vikings had to overcome in 2011 was losing star running back Cory McCaffrey to a ruptured Achilles’ tendon in the sixth game of the season against Montana. McCaffrey had led the nation in rushing and touchdowns. “Cory being out really hurt us against Weber and Montana,” Burton says. “When he went down, it just changed the scope of what we could do run-game wise.” The Vikings caught a break, though. Their 23-17 victory at Northern Colorado was recently brought into question when the Big Sky announced that the illegal block penalty on Northern Colorado with three seconds remaining was the officials’ mistake. The flag cost the Bears a 25-yard touchdown that would have tied the game and set up a game-winning PAT try. Burton says he does not believe that one call made the difference in the game. “There were a ton of calls that didn’t go our way that changed that game to even get it to that point,” he says. “It was interesting that that email went out. There are no games that come down to one call.” Regardless of injuries and referees’ decisions, the Vikings made their own luck through much of the season. Portland State dramatically improved its defense from a year ago and got stellar play at quarterback from Kavanaugh. Playing his final season of football, the 6-foot Lincoln High alum set the Big Sky single -season rushing record for a quarterback (1,060 yards) and broke the Big Sky career quarterback rushing record (1,566). In 2011, he was 127 of 219 passing (58 percent) for 1,628 yards and nine TDs, with six interceptions. Kavanaugh says the Vikings —2-9 in each of the previous two seasons —always had the talent to win games, but that it just took a coach like Burton to bring the team together. “We’ve always had good players at Portland State, but it’s taken a guy to find how to put the players in the best situation,” Kavanaugh says. “He brought a bunch of guys together who weren’t on the same page the last four years and got them all on the same page and working toward a common goal.” Kavanaugh says he is glad that he chose to play football at Portland State. “Knowing what I know now, if I could do it all over again, I’d make the same decision (to go to PSU),” he says. “The last two years have been important to me. I don’t think I’ve ever had a team where at the end of the season I felt so grateful to be a part of it.”