The last time Portland State’s football team traveled to Eugene to take on the Ducks was in 2002, better known to Oregon fans as the painful Jason Fife era. Yet on that day the Ducks probably could have trotted Dan Fouts out of the broadcaster’s booth and still racked up the 41-0 shellacking they handed the Division I-AA Vikings that day. The only other time these teams met wasn’t much better for PSU, a 58-16 loss in 1994 when seniors graduating in 2007 were playing pee-wee ball.
In 2006, the Vikings, whose entire yearly budget is less than Mike Bellotti’s contract, just hope to stay healthy when they take the field at Autzen Stadium Saturday afternoon. This is a team that saw two quarterbacks knocked out of the game against Cal, one for the rest of the year. This is a team that just notched its second victory ever over a Division I-A opponent earlier this season, a 17-6 win over New Mexico.
But in their own world, the Vikings are actually in a better position than the Ducks heading into Saturday’s matchup. The Viks are ranked 19th in the College Sporting News Coaches Poll (to Oregon’s No. 25 Division I-A ranking) and are 5-3 on the year, including 4-2 in the Big Sky Conference. Too bad the Big Sky is a league that few have heard of and even fewer care about.
Around 6,000 fans came out to see the Vikings’ final home game of the season last weekend. This is the sad reality that Oregon’s largest university has to deal with. An apathetic fan base. No funding. The big games of the year are against teams from Montana and Utah. You begin to see the plight of the Vikings fan.
There’s a big bonus for playing up in the South Park Blocks, namely that playing Division I-AA football means access to something the big boys can only dream about: a playoff system. And this year, despite senior starting quarterback Sawyer Smith missing significant time due to that Cal game a couple weeks ago, the Vikings are in the hunt to make the playoffs for the first time in years.
But this weekend, while Smith is tossing interceptions and the Vikings’ defense is getting lit up by Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart, try to remember that the opposing team you’re watching really isn’t that bad. In fact, in Division I-AA ball the Vikings are ranked seventh in the Sagarin ratings, created by Jeff Sagarin and featured in USA Today.
The Vikings have a speedy defense led by senior linebackers DJ Robinson and Adam Hayward. These guys lead the team in sacks and tackles, combining for 139 tackles and 11.5 sacks. Eugene natives might remember Robinson from his playing days at Willamette High School where he was a three-sport star and dominated as a linebacker and running back.
Senior defensive tackle CJ Niusulu, weighing in at 300 pounds, adds serious size to the Vikings D-line and PAC-10 experience. Niusulu was a highly prized recruit at UCLA until injury problems and trouble with the law. Now he bolsters a stingy run defense that has allowed only 108 yards a game, including two contests against Division I-A schools.
On offense, watch out for a pair of senior wide receivers. Brandon Ferrigno leads the team with a 19-yards-a-catch average, though with only three touchdowns he hasn’t gotten into the end zone as much as he’d like to. Tremayne Kirkland, a UNLV transfer, leads the team with four touchdowns and has explosive speed.
So here’s the plea to the Ducks: go easy on the Vikings this Saturday afternoon. Rest your starters. Put in some guys who’ve been riding the pine all year. Vikings fans don’t care about the game outside of the novelty of playing Oregon. The Ducks and their fans are already penciling in a win and mentally moving on to the homecoming game against Washington.
I wish no ill will towards the Ducks or their fans. To tell the truth, I’m one of them. I’ve been following Oregon football and basketball since my family moved to this state in 1992. While my own plans to attend the University of Oregon were derailed, my sister is a sophomore and a proud Duck. On Saturday, I’ll root for both teams and I’ll be glad when it’s over, so both teams can get on with having successful seasons.
The fact is, both teams still have something big left to play for this season outside of this game. The Ducks could well be headed to their third Holiday Bowl since 2000.
For the Vikings, a trip to the playoffs would end a drought spanning the last six seasons and validate a senior-laden team that has never finished better than 7-4. Win or lose on Saturday, this could well be their time.