The Vikings could finish the season with the dubious distinction of being the most frequently and most heavily penalized football team in the country.
You read that right – the most penalized of all 234 Division 1 and 1-AA football programs in the country.
Heading into Saturday’s game against UC Davis, the regular season finale, the team is averaging the second-most penalties (10.60) and the second-most penalty yards (95.5) per game in the country. They are easily within striking distance of the lowly Northwestern State Demons from Louisiana (the Demons average 10.8 penalties per game and 97.1 penalty yards/game) for the one number-one ranking no coach wants to have.
When told of the Vikings’ low rankings, coach Tim Walsh said, "That’s not good."
Not good indeed. But sadly, not new.
Penalties have become somewhat synonymous with PSU football over the last three years. Last year PSU averaged 8.36 penalties a game for 81.1 yards/game. That was bad enough for second worst in the Big Sky Conference, but at least it was an improvement over the league-worst 8.7 penalties per game PSU averaged in 2002.
This year PSU has left the Big Sky under a pile of yellow flags and moved on to compete with the big boys for the national championship of penalties.
To put PSU’s 10.6 penalties per game and 95.5 penalty yards per game in context, consider the following:
Of the 234 teams in D1 and 1-AA football, there are only four other teams that average more than 10 penalties per game.
Of those same 234 teams, only one other team averages over 90 penalty yards per game.
Oregon (8.2 penalties per gm and 77.2 yds per gm) and Oregon State (8.6 and 77.8) are the two most penalized teams in the PAC-10 but look downright responsible compared to PSU.
The old adage that good teams don’t make dumb penalties may be slightly overused, but consider that the top ten teams in this week’s D1-AA national rankings average 6.5 penalties per game and 56.1 penalty yards per game.
That would mean the Vikings give up nearly 40 yards per game more than the league’s elite.
But Walsh correctly noted that things aren’t that simple: "Penalties realistically change from week to week depending on what officiating crew you have."
Coaches must convey this reality to their players and demand that they are prepared to deal with whatever manner the game is called in and focused enough to adjust before they cost their team yards and momentum.
When asked whether the surfeit of penalties worried him, Walsh said, "One fact that is true. You look at us being the most penalized team; you can also look at the teams we played. When we play them [they] are penalized a lot too."
If that seems a little convenient, that’s because it is.
Officials flagged Portland State nine times for 91 yards against Montana State and only flagged MSU five times for 47 yards. Against Northern Arizona, officials penalized PSU 10 times for 71 yards and NAU five times for 24 yards.
That means PSU’s opponents got 91 yards they did nothing for. That’s 45.5 yards per game PSU gave away.
Both games turned into nailbiters. PSU ended up losing both in the last seconds. Think an extra 45 yards would have helped?
"Penalties by effort are not a problem, penalties that are stupid…I think that you have to do things where there is some type of punishment," Walsh said.
Walsh downplayed penalties that resulted from players making a good effort, but said players who make stupid penalties need to be punished.
How about six false starts against Idaho State, with three coming in a stretch of four plays at one point?
"False starts are an arbitrary thing too," Walsh continued. "They’re not acceptable but that’s not, to me, a big deal."
Maybe not, but when Walsh and the Vikings look back on this season and what could have been, the big deal may be all the arbitrary things that separated them from a 6-1 conference record and a top seed in the playoffs.