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Special teams plays save PSU from ugly home loss

Portland State did just about everything it could to gift wrap Saturday’s game and hand-deliver it to North Dakota.

The Vikings missed three field goals, turned over the ball on the UND 1-yard-line, amassed nine penalties for 75 yards, went through three quarterbacks and went into the fourth quarter trailing 10-0.

But …

Twice the Vikings turned enormous special teams plays into touchdowns, and PSU held on for a 14-10 win before an announced crowd of 5,120 at Jeld-Wen Field.

“In the end, you either find ways to win or you find ways to lose,” Portland State coach Nigel Burton said. “We had to go through three quarterbacks and guys getting hurt, but as a team, we found a way. And the special teams play was great.”

With 12:32 remaining in the game, North Dakota lined up for a punt from its 25. Portland State dialed up a block attempt. Justin Lilly and Michael Plummer got a good push off the line. Plummer, a senior who has spent his career on special teams, got his hand on Mitch Meindel’s kick.

“Justin Lilly went 'A' gap, I went 'B,' ” Plummer said. “He crashed through their shield. I got a short edge and just went and got it. We both got off the ball, and I did what I had to do.”

The Vikings recovered the ball on the UND 18.

Four plays later, DJ Adams took a handoff, tried to go up the middle, found nothing, bounced the play outside and streaked into the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown that made the score 10-7 with 10:45 left.

On North Dakota’s next possession, UND again was forced to punt, this time from its 17.

The snap was low, and Meindel was tackled for a 2-yard loss.

On the first play of the series, the Vikings called Adams’ number again. This time, Adams took a sweep to the left and tore 15 yards into the end zone.

The PAT made the score 14-10 with 9:15 to go.

“Both of those TDs were off great special teams plays,” said Adams, who finished with 111 yards on 18 carries. “Adding that momentum to our offense allowed us to kind of catch them off guard both times. We got to the edge before they could realize what was going on.”

That was all PSU needed, with the way its defense was playing. After giving up 201 yards in the first half, the Vikings stonewalled UND, allowing 37 yards over the last 30 minutes.

“They’re coming into their own,” Burton said, of his defense. “They’re believing, they’re doing the things we’re asking them to do, and it’s good to finally see them getting paid for their hard work.”

The Vikings' offense finished with 392 yards.

It took PSU three quarterbacks to accumulate that number, though. Kieran McDonagh, who has started at QB since the first game of his freshman season, was pulled in favor of Paris Penn after the offense failed to put any points on the board in the first half.

McDonagh threw a costly interception on the UND 1 late in the second quarter. But he finished the half with a fairly good statistical line. He completed 10 of 16 passes for 98 yards. McDonagh also was the Vikings' leading rusher in the half, gaining 71 yards on seven carries.

In three series, Penn completed 2 of 4 passes for 6 yards and rushed 5 times for 4 yards. Portland State then put McDonagh back into the game, but for only one more series.

He had three carries for 20 yards and threw three incomplete passes.

After the game, McDonagh said that with the Vikings having an open quarterback competition during the week, his lack of reps in practice was a factor in his performance.

“This whole week, it wasn’t like I got more reps than anyone else,” McDonagh said. “It was an open competition throughout the week. He (Burton) didn’t even tell us until yesterday during walk-through who would be in. I felt I was a little under prepared.”

McDonagh paused, then very quietly added: “It’s my fault.”

After pulling McDonagh for the second time, Portland State put in Collin Ramirez, who was under center for the remainder of the fourth quarter. Ramirez finished 1 of 2 passing for 7 yards. He also had two carries for 21 yards, including a 14-yard pickup on third down with 1:41 remaining that iced the game and allowed Portland State to run out the clock.

“My first drive, I was focusing on keeping the guys in it,” Ramirez said. “That confidence helped propel the rest of the team, and it helped us in the end.”

Before the blocked punt, the Vikings could not have played much worse.

North Dakota got on the board first on a breakdown by the Portland State defense. UND quarterback Joe Mollberg threw a screen pass to Greg Hardin. North Dakota blocked the play perfectly, with two receivers knocking PSU’s two defensive backs out of the play. That was all Mollberg needed. He turned the play upfield and was gone, 80 yards into the end zone.

The PAT made the score 7-0 with 5:50 left in the first quarter.

UND went up 10-0 when Zeb Miller hit a 22-yard field goal with 5:14 remaining in the second quarter.

Portland State had two kickers miss three field-goal attempts. Nick Fernandez missed a 32-yarder and a 38-yarder in the first half, and Marcus Kinsella had a 44-yard attempt blocked in the third quarter.

The Vikings will remain at home next week when they host Weber State at 1 p.m. at Jeld-Wen Field.