The last time Portland State faced a Pac-12 team, they beat Washington State in Pullman to open the 2015 season. They scored all 24 of their points on the ground and in the second half. The win propelled them to a very good season, finishing 9-3 in head coach Bruce Barnum's first year at the program. Can the Vikings' offense come alive in the second half against the Huskies and play spoiler?
The Vikings run a Pistol offense, made famous by Colin Kaepernick when he was playing his college ball at the University of Nevada. It's sort of a mix of the shotgun formation and single-back sets, with a lone running back lined up behind the QB, 4 yards deep. It's a very versatile formation that allows some of the advantages of both the shotgun and single-back formations. For example, since running backs line up directly behind the quarterback in the pistol, the run plays can go to either side of the formation. They can also run counter plays, draws, and options with more versatility than typical run plays out of the shotgun. Yet, because they aren't in a traditional I formation under center, you still get the advantages of the shotgun: it lets mobile QBs scramble easier, takes some pressure off offensive lines, and gives more time to diagnose and react to blitzes.
Here are some highlights of PSU's 31-0 victory last season over Western Oregon, where you'll see current QB Alex Kuresa run the pistol offense. (There's also a fake field goal in there for which Chris Petersen will no doubt have them ready. I just jinxed us, didn't I?) Be sure to also check out this highlight video of their 66-35 loss to San Jose State last week if you want a better idea of how the Vikings score their points.
Alex Kuresa (2016): 357 yards, 3 TDs, 3 INTs, 54.2% completion, 7.4 yds/attempt, 124.8 passer rating.
Alex Kuresa has been a bit of a nomad both on the field and off. He started his career at BYU playing receiver for two easons. He then transferred to Snow College to play QB, where he threw for 2,300 yards and 25 touchdowns in his first season. When he transferred again, to Portland State, he beat out senior QB Kieran McDonagh who had started 29 games for the Vikings. It was obviously a very good choice by head coach Bruce Barnum, as he won the Big Sky's Newcomer of The Year award, and brought Portland State to the upper tier of the conference.
So far this year, Kuresa has put up decent yardage and TD totals through two games, but his completion percentage and TD-INT ratio show he has a lot of room for improvement as a passer. He's definitely a mobile QB made for the Pistol, and rushed for 92 yards on 16 carries in last year's upset of Washington State.
There's also Paris Penn, who is listed as a QB but hasn't yet recorded a pass attempt. He's a do-it-all weapon on offense who leads the team with 164 yards rushing, and often is lined up as a wide receiver, where he's caught a touchdown.
Nate Tago (2016): 35 rushes for 159 yards and 3 TDs.
Nate Tago is a senior running back from Rancho Santa Margarita, CA with good size at 5-11, 215 pounds. He was a surprise player his freshman year, playing well in short bursts and earning the team's kick returning spot. He finished the 2013 season as honorable mention All-Big Sky. He continued to rack up all purpose yards for the next two seasons before winning the starting running back job as a senior. He has over 2,000 all-purpose yards in his Portland State career.
He had a rough day last week, rushing for just 23 yards on 11 carries with no TDs. In week one he scored three times while racking up 136 yards on the ground. He's a workhorse with 215 career carries, and according to PSU's athletics website, has only lost 26 rushing yards in three seasons.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Maximo Espitia (2016): 6 catches for 131 yards and 1 TD
Paris Penn (2016): 5 catches for 30 yards and 1 TD
Darnell Adams (2016): 4 catches for 65 yards
Espitia is a senior tight end who spent two seasons at Cal, playing in 19 games between 2012 and 2013. He came into the season not having played for two years due to both transfer and injury, but has already become his team's primary receiving threat. He's a versatile player who came to Cal as a fullback, but played outside linebacker and tight end once in Berkeley. He also played QB in high school. At 6-2 and 235 pounds he projects as more of a pass-catching H back, but will no doubt be Kuresa's favorite target.
Quarterback Paris Penn being the team's second leading receiver should say something about the offense and it's tendencies. The Pistol is primarily run-first, with both the quarterback and running back taking designed runs. The pass game is usually secondary, and the pass numbers from last season affirm that.
As you may expect, there is not a lot of information out there about the Portland State offensive line. Through two games this season, the team is averaging 244 yards on the ground, which is usually quite hard without a quality OL. It's a testament to their ability that they're able to make running room in a Pistol offense where the defense usually keys on stopping the run. However, they've let in five sacks this season, and need to do a better job protecting their QB on Saturday if they want him to get back to Portland in one piece.
The Vikings present a unique challenge on offense because, as Chris Petersen said this week, the Pistol attack is unlike any other they've faced in his two years at the program. They're absolutely a run-first team - in last year's upset of WSU, they ran 48 times while throwing only 12 passes. They practice a basic principle all teams try to follow: run the ball to set up the big pass later. Get the defense to cheat up, and beat them over the top. Jimmy Lake remarked how his DBs will have to be very disciplined not to get caught up trying to stop the run every single play, causing them to get beat deep.
Ultimately, Washington will come into this game with a huge talent, size, and speed advantage. This defense has shut down two very different offenses so far manned by more talented teams. The only way for Portland State to find any rhythm against Washington's D is if the Huskies are caught napping, which I just can't see Petersen letting happen. Kuresa is not a great passer and will probably have a miserable afternoon throwing. The Huskies' lack of a top-end pass rush so far could open up some scrambling opportunities, but going against an FCS offensive line should allow Husky rushers to set up camp in the backfield.