Ready, set, snap

This season will not be an easy one for the men on the Portland State Vikings football team. The team is coming off of its worst season in 27 years—one that saw the Vikings tie for last place in the Big Sky Conference with a paltry 2-9 overall record.

This season will not be an easy one for the men on the Portland State Vikings football team. The team is coming off of its worst season in 27 years—one that saw the Vikings tie for last place in the Big Sky Conference with a paltry 2-9 overall record.

In the wake of last year, the team has been turned upside down with changes in leadership as well as strategy. This season is the first for new head coach Nigel Burton and his first-ever tenure as a head coach after spending the last two years as defensive coordinator at the University of Nevada.

Burton has brought three members of his former Wolf Pack staff with him to the Pacific Northwest. He also brought Bruce Barnum in as offensive coordinator who, prior to his last two years at Cornell as offensive coordinator, spent eight years coaching in the Big Sky Conference at Idaho State. His prior experience with the teams in this conference should prove to be a big help.

Burton and Barnum have shifted the offense from the “Run-and-Shoot,” which is a pass-heavy strategy with little emphasis on the running game, to a new “Pistol” offense, which consistently relies on the running game to gain yards. In the Pistol, the quarterback begins the play four yards behind his linemen, and the running back is three yards behind him. The idea is that the quarterback will have additional time to read the field during passing plays and the running back will be able to quickly charge downfield during rushing plays.

The Vikings’ defense has also been altered. The 3-4 defensive scheme of the last three years has been switched over to a 4-3 defense, which relies more on reaction time and less on reading the field. The extra down lineman that the 4-3 offers should also help the Vikings stop their opponents’ running game.

The offense struggled all throughout the 2009 season. Portland State garnered an average of 5.5 yards per play and, when compared to their opponents’ average of 5.9 yards, that doesn’t appear too bad. But when the Vikings’ points per game are compared to those of their opponents, it shows that Portland State was outscored by an average of 12 points.

Burton hired Eric Jackson to run the defense side of the Portland State game. Jackson has been secondary coach and special teams coordinator at Princeton for the past nine years. The Vikings’ anemic secondary was a glaring weakness on last year’s team and it is expected that Jackson will be able to resolve any lingering obstacles there.

Vikings fans should know that this is a young team. Former head coach Jerry Glanville was invested in building the team and was often proud to say how many freshmen he had starting games. But this year, 10 of the 24 starters from last year are gone, with the majority of those being on offense. However, there are 17 returning redshirt players, and more than 50 players on the roster are either freshmen or sophomores.

Among all the doom and gloom though, is one last thing: There is reason to be hopeful about Vikings football.

Burton has said repeatedly that he wants to create a “culture” within the team. With his youth and quiet power, it seems he has done just that. Players have described a heady atmosphere of football and teammates that exists from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day.

They have also been describing a simplified game plan that they are learning and trying to get down pat to minimize the mistakes of seasons past. This is an ideal strategy to teach basics of the new systems, especially on the defensive side where former coach Glanville had installed an overly complicated scheme.

Offensive coordinator Barnum and defensive coordinator Jackson seem to have the same goals for the team as Burton. They also seem to share Burton’s vision of a cohesive unit. This united spirit will help when the team struggles this season, which it certainly will, given all that you now know.

The 2010 football season may be shaping up to be a trial run, but it’s one that can be expected to reap results both on and off the field.

The season ahead

Sept. 4

at Arizona State

The skinny: This is an unprecedented meeting of both schools. Arizona is in the Pac-10, which means they are out of the Viks’ league, literally. It will be good practice though, and playing on a big stage will be a good experience for the team’s youth.

Sept. 11

at UC Davis

Last year’s score: 34-31, UC Davis

The skinny: The Viks played a clean game through three quarters and had an 11-point lead entering the fourth quarter. Then everything went south. They allowed 17 points in the final quarter and managed only a field goal themselves. The Aggies racked up 484 yards of offense in one of the worst defensive showings of the season.

Sept. 18

at Oregon

The skinny: Another game, another

Pac-10 opponent. These teams have played each other three times in the past eight years and the Ducks’ smallest margin of victory was 41 points. This game should follow the trend.

Oct. 2

vs. Idaho State

Last year’s score: 41-34, Idaho State

The skinny: The Viks’ gave the Bengals their lone win of the 2009 season. The Viking run defense was conspicuously absent, allowing a 5.5-yard per run average. The biggest problem on the Viking offense was four interceptions, which negated the beauty of a 307-yard passing day.

Oct. 9

at Montana State

Last year’s score: 28-10, Montana State

The skinny: The Bobcats are a tough, defensive-minded team. They allowed the Viks only 82 yards through the air in their last meeting. The Viks trailed by 28 points before their first and only touchdown in the second quarter. The defense did stiffen in the second half though, and allowed only 62 yards of offense.

Oct. 16

vs. Montana

Last year’s score: 49-17, Montana

The skinny: Montana is the conference darling, having won or shared 15 of the last 17 conference titles. They have also played in the last two FCS championship games. However, like the Vikings, the Grizzlies will be adjusting to a new regime under a new head coach, so there will be a slightly wider margin for success.

Oct. 23

at Weber State

Last year’s score: 36-29, Weber State

The skinny: The Wildcats are an offensive-minded team that puts points on the board. They shared the conference title with Montana two years ago and went to the NCAA playoffs last year. The Viks almost stopped them last year, but an interception that was meant to be actually wasn’t and the Wildcats scored the clincher with 17 seconds left. It gave the Viks a season-long hangover.

Oct. 30

vs. Eastern Washington

Last year’s score: 47-10, E. Washington

The skinny: It wasn’t so much a football field as a slaughterhouse when the two teams met last year in Seattle at Quest Field. It was a Viking failure on all sides of the ball—the defense allowed the Eagles’ quarterback to throw for 413 yards and the offense gave up five interceptions. The Eagles will be more vulnerable without their strong-armed passer, but the Viks will have to function on all cylinders to keep the game competitive.

Nov. 6

at Sacramento State

Last year’s score: 31-14, Sacramento State

The skinny: Traditionally, the Viks find themselves on the winning side of these matches, but not last year. The running game had a lousy day, gaining -2 yards, but the passing game soared for 370 yards. The Viks also made a spate of mistakes resulting in three turnovers.

Nov. 13

vs. Northern Colorado

Last year’s score: 23-18, Portland State

The skinny: The Vik’s only conference win last year was against the Bears on a snowy day in Colorado. Special teams kicked it into high gear, literally, with a 50-yard field goal in the driving snow. The defense was hot to trot and picked up an interception and a fumble. Even the rush attack gobbled up over 100 yards.

Nov. 20

at N. Arizona

Last year’s score: 44-23, Northern Arizona

The skinny: The Lumberjacks led an even-keeled attack to blister the Viks. They scored at least seven points in every quarter. The Viks had one of their poorest showings of the season in overall offense with 274 yards. A sudden surge in the fourth quarter for two touchdowns just wasn’t enough.