Portland State not roughing it with Ruffin at tight end
With touchdown leader Charlie Taumoepeau sidelined by injury, the Portland State Vikings had to go with a backup plan last week.
Their Plan B was actually Plan AJ.
And it went well enough that Plan C, whatever that would be, shouldn't be necessary.
Sophomore AJ Ruffin stepped in for Taumoepeau at tight end last Saturday and turned in a Grade A performance when the Vikings needed it most.
"Can't say enough about what AJ did," PSU coach Bruce Barnum offered after the Vikings pulled off a 22-20 upset victory on the road and over then-No. 14-ranked Montana Grizzlies.
Ruffin made several key plays and receptions in the FCS shocker.
He also helped block for a Portland State running game that had its most efficient day of the season.
And Ruffin was blocking on the winning kick, a 52-yard field goal by true freshman Cody Williams with four seconds remaining.
"Honestly, I had no doubt it was going to go in," Ruffin said. "Great moment. It was crazy."
He and other Vikings stood and watched as the kick made its way to and then through the uprights.
"The longest four seconds of my life," Ruffin says.
Portland State had never won a Big Sky game at Montana, and the Vikings had lost 12 conference games in a row dating to 2016.
"But we came in with a mind-set that we believed we were going to win," Ruffin says. "That spread throughout the team and even in the locker room at halftime, and it helped us handle some adversity in the second half."
If Ruffin didn't make people forget Taumoepeau, he at least made Montana think about the backup who stepped up in a big game and in a big way.
Ruffin left Missoula with career highs of five catches and 70 yards receiving.
"I go into every game expecting to be able to do whatever the team asks of me," Ruffin says. "Last week, the next man had to step up, and I was ready for the task."
Taumoepeau has starred with big-play ability and gliding speed through opposing defenses. He scored two touchdowns in both the Nevada and Oregon games to open the 2018 season. He's a 6-3, 240-pound junior from Federal Way, Washington, who figures to have a good shot down the road at playing pro football.
Taumoepeau has had three touchdown catches — with long runs after the catch — of more than 70 yards this season. But he was hobbled first by a tender hamstring and then sat out last week and missed early practices this week with a sore ankle.
"Charlie is a great player — he sets a high standard," Ruffin says. "I wanted to try to match that."
Ruffin has been more under the radar, but he's been part of the PSU game plan all season as well — more of a 1-B tight end than a No. 2, really, and involved in jumbo packages, both for his blocking and his ability to give quarterbacks Davis Alexander and Jalani Eason another big target.
Ruffin's playing time has increased since last year, when he played in all 11 games and totaled six catches for 83 yards.
In six games this season for the 2-4 Vikings, he has 12 receptions for 150 yards.
Four of Ruffin's five catches at Montana went for first downs, including a 6-yarder on third-and-6 that kept the winning drive alive in the final minutes.
"He made some catches than changed field position for us," Barnum says.
Ruffin also ran a key clear-out route on a fourth-and-2 sideline reception by wide receiver Emmanuel Daigbe on the Vikings' final drive. Don't covert that play -- which picked up three yards to the Montana 35-yard line -- and the Viks don't win.
"I feel I did pretty solid for my first official start," Ruffin says. "There's a lot I can still work on, but it felt good to be out there and play the whole game."
His favorite pass pattern is the hunt route, in which Taumoepeau also specializes. He reads the middle of the defense, loops around a linebacker and finds a hole in the zone.
But Ruffin, who lines up either in a slot or next to an offensive tackle, would like to consider himself a complete player.
"I feel like a real tight end, because when it comes down to it, I can put my hand in the dirt and block," he says. "But I have primarily been put outside to run those wide receiver routes and spead the field a little bit."
The blocking was important at Montana.
"It was fun to be able to create a new line of scrimmage and get some push. Our O-line did a great job. There were some dogs in the trenches that game," Ruffin says. "And our running backs were doing what they needed to do, whether it was running or catching the ball."
One thing Ruffin is still looking for: his first college touchdown. It would seem to be only a matter of time, though Portland State has thrown for just nine TDs this year (five to Taumoepeau), and the Viking QBs have a variety of receivers and running backs to choose from when in scoring position.
Perhaps that breakthrough can come this Saturday, when Portland State plays its only game of 2018 at Providence Park.
The Vikings will seek to improve to 2-2 in the Big Sky when they play host to Northern Colorado at 2 p.m. It'll be homecoming for Portland State.
The Vikings will go into the Northern Colorado game in a different place emotionally. They just have to make sure they have come back down to earth.
"We're up," Ruffin says. "Barney (Coach Barnum) told us we can beat any team in the Big Sky, and the Montana game let us know it wasn't a fluke.
"But now we've got to be humble about it, and move forward.
"We're high-energy, though. The feel around campus already is much higher than it has been."
Ruffin says he has high goals for the Vikings while he plays out his career on the Park Blocks.
"I want to win games and just continue to develop and elevate my game," he says. "But I'm reaching for a ring. Trying to get a Big Sky championship. I want to win it all. But first we have to take it week by week, day by day."
Ruffin is a 6-5, 250-pounder from Wilson High in Tacoma, Washington.
An only child, his full name is Armand Ruffin Jr., and he is the son of Armand Ruffin Sr., and Christine DuBois.
"Both my parents always been there for me," he says, adding that he chose PSU in part because "it wasn't too far from home, and my family could come to all the games."
At Portland State, he is studying social sciences, and he lists working with kids as a potential goal, along with either playing pro ball or being a teacher or coach.
"I'm really interested in psychology and sociology, just the way the world works, and how we move as people and as social beings," he says.
He will get another chance to move through an opposing defense on Saturday.