Preseason polls count PSU out

The Big Sky Conference preseason media and coaches football polls are out, and the Portland State Vikings are predicted to finish exactly where they finished last year: in the middle.

The media polls picked the Vikings to finish fourth in the eight-team conference. Conference coaches predicted a sixth-place finish for Portland State. Big Sky powerhouse Montana was picked to finish first in both polls.

The Vikings will have to prove the preseason pollsters wrong if they want a fifth-consecutive winning season and a berth in the Division 1-AA playoffs.

Last season, the Vikings were rolling early, lost a laugher to the Oregon Ducks and a tough game in Flagstaff to Northern Arizona, then went 4-1 and were ranked 13th in the 1-AA poll. The Viks then lost their last two games to pitiful Weber State and pass-happy Montana State, finishing with a losing record (3-4) in conference play.

The disparity in the media and coaches polls might have something to do with reputation versus reality.

The media seemed to go with reputation. The Vikings are always tough, and the team showed off a new facet to its game last year with a vastly improved defense. The polled media members know that coach Tim Walsh always fields a strong, fast, well-prepared team. Walsh is now the winningest coach in Viking football history, passing coaching legend Pokey Allen last year. And the Vikings return one of the best running backs ever to rip sod and mow down defenders at PSU, junior Ryan Fuqua, a preseason All-America candidate.

But the coaches went with what appears to be, at least on paper, a crippling loss of offensive starters for the Vikings. Gone to the NFL is quarterback Wood. Also done are wide receivers Jesse Levin and Antonio Jackson, tight end Tim Hester, and Fuqua’s battering ram, fullback Saleem Muhammad, a first-team all-Big Sky player last season.

In all, the Vikings lose 15 starters from last year’s team, including second-team all-Big Sky kicker Mike Cajal-Willis and punter Edi Pazos, but they will return 34 letter winners.

There is good news for Fuqua and the Viking running game that pounded opponents into the turf last season. Junior Micah Jackson-Sattler and seniors Gregg Owens and Jason Hicks return to an offensive line that helped Fuqua gain 1,378 yards on the ground in 2002. New quarterback Joe Wiser will need tough protection as he adjusts to a starting role.

The big-play Viking defense returns five starters, two on the defensive line and three in the secondary. Senior Reynard Carrie will lead the defensive backfield, and seniors Josh Ratliff and Agatupu Sagapolutele will anchor the line. Ratliff and Sagapolutele combined for 19 tackles for a loss last season.

If the Viks want to step up this year, their first three games at home are mega-crucial. PSU was 5-1 at home in PGE Park last year, and its first three opponents are going to be ripe for the picking. Former D-II rival Texas A&M-Kingsville drops by PGE Park for a game on Thursday, Sept. 4. Then comes Nicholls State and one of last year’s villains, conference rival Northern Arizona.

After that, it’s road time for the Viks, as their next three games are in California, Texas and Washington, respectively. Fresno State, the Vikings’ opponent on Sept. 27, won a D-1 bowl game last year and will be a tough battle. The game against Eastern Washington on Oct. 11 has to be circled on every Eagle defender’s calendar. In his last two games against them, Fuqua has run the ball 86 times for 657 yards and five touchdowns. Ouch!

Preseason practice kicks off Aug. 11 on the Peter W. Stott Community Field. The Vikings will run single practices the first week, then alternate single and double practices until the PGE Park showdown with Texas A&M-Kingsville. You can watch your Vikings prep for the season; the practice schedule is on