Going back to basics has helped PSU cut down on turnovers

by: COURTESY OF PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY - Cornelius Edison (left) and Kyle Smith are two-fifths of the offensive line that, along with tight end Cam Thompson, has helped pave the way for Portland State to reassert itself as a run-first team -- and win three consecutive Big Sky games.Back to basics. Back to running the football. Back to taking care of the ball. Back to winning.

Portland State has done all of the above the past three weeks, saving a season that was going nowhere.

The Vikings (6-4, 3-3 Big Sky) are on a three-game win streak going into their home finale, 1 p.m. Saturday at Jeld-Wen Field, versus Sacramento State (4-6, 3-3). And it all started with a re-dedication to the running game that generally is the main part of the pistol offense used by fourth-year PSU coach Nigel Burton.

“We said, ‘Who can run the ball? How are we going to block it?’ We went back to the basic deal, how we were the first year here,” PSU offensive coordinator Bruce Barnum says.

The difference has been startling.

Since losing 17-7 at Southern Utah on Oct. 12, the Vikings have won at home over North Dakota 14-10 and Weber State 45-24 and last week won at Idaho State 38-31.

The stats from the past three games show the commitment to the run game. In the streak, the Vikings have rushed 173 times and passed 68 times. They’ve rushed for 1,026 yards and thrown for 385. They’ve had 47 first downs rushing and 17 first downs passing. And they’ve committed only two turnovers — both interceptions.

“We had to do something,” Barnum says, of the turnovers. “We sat down both our backs (DJ Adams and Shaquille Richard) for a half each after they coughed up the ball.”

The Viks still are next-to-last in the Big Sky in turnover margin (minus-9), but they are plus-3 in the past three games.

Adams continues to carry most of the load for PSU. He ranks second in the conference in rushing yards (1,207, 6.0 average), rushing touchdowns (13) and yards per game (120.7). He is on pace to have one of the top 10,

maybe even top five rushing seasons ever by a Viking.

Quarterback Collin Ramirez, who was third-string most of the season, has stepped in, too. He ran 12 times for 117 yards and two TDs last week at Idaho State.

“We gave that goal to all the quarterbacks,” Barnum said. “We said, ‘We need 100 yards out of you guys, not just the tailbacks, with this read-option stuff.’ ”

As a team, the Viks trail only triple-option-based Cal Poly in the Big Sky rushing stats. Portland State is averaging 275.5 yards per game on the ground — and 342 over the past three games.

And PSU has guaranteed itself of no worse than a .500 season for only the second time in the past seven seasons (the 2011 Viks were 7-4).

It all starts with the offensive line, a mixture of youth, experience and togetherness under fifth-year position coach Brad Davis.

“Brad gets those guys going,” Barnum says. “They’re kind of a team within the team.”

The starters last week: Left tackle — Kyle Smith, a freshman from Elmira High; left guard — Cornelius Edison, a junior from University Place, Wash.; center — Mitch Gaulke, a senior from West Linn; right guard — Cam Keizur, a freshman from West Linn; and right tackle — Mitch Van Dyk, a senior from Paso Robles, Calif.

Edison, Gaulke and Van Dyk were honorable mention all-Big Sky a year ago.

The fivesome averages about 6-4 1/2 and 297 pounds, and it’s an interesting mix.

“Gaulke is the team captain, and having an O-lineman be your captain doesn’t happen every year,” Barnum says. “He’s too short, too slow — he shouldn’t be there — but he gets it done week in and week out.

“Van Dyk is like Old Man River. I don’t think he’s said more than six words in 10 games, but he shows it on the field.”

Another big part of the show up front is tight end Cam Thompson, 6-5, 240, a sophomore from Lebanon. “He’s our play-action guy in the pass game, and he’s crucial in the run game,” Barnum says. “He twisted an ankle early last week but was out there playing on Saturday. If there is a hero in the run game, it’s him, because he played hurt.”

• Portland State’s bid for an NCAA women’s soccer berth got shot down Saturday when Weber State won a shootout at Hillsboro Stadium for the Big Sky tournament title.

PSU and the Wildcats played to a 0-0 draw in the conference championship game, and then Weber State won 3-0 on penalty kicks.

The Vikings didn’t lose to a Big Sky team all season.

In the NCAA RPI rankings, PSU is 103rd, Weber State 115th.

• PSU volleyball can tie North Dakota atop the league standings with a home victory over UND at 7 tonight.

The Vikings (13-3 Big Sky) are 11-3 overall at home, including 10-0 in conference matches. North Dakota (14-2) is 8-3 overall on the road, including 6-1 in Big Sky road matches.

UND won 3-2 over PSU at Grand Forks on Oct. 12.

• The Portland State men’s basketball team is idle until it plays host to a tournament at Stott Center Nov. 22-24. The Viks will meet Loyola Chicago the first day. PSU will play Southern Illinois Edwardsville the second day and UC Davis on the final day.

The Viking women opened Sunday, losing 72-54 at home to the Saint Mary’s Gaels, who are aiming for an NCAA Tournament bid this season. PSU has 12 days between games, not playing again till Nov. 20 at home against Seattle.

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