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Optimism unbeaten as PSU kicks off

On Sports


Photo Credit: COURTESY OF PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY - Portland State coach Nigel Burton says the Vikings were close in 2013 to having the greatest Division I season in school history - and that his players now know about the little things that can bring them that kind of success this year.Does Portland State have what it takes to win a Big Sky championship this season?

“No question,” Nigel Burton says. “I don’t have any doubt whatsoever.”

Wildly optimistic, you might suggest, for the coach of a team that went 6-6 overall a year ago, finished ninth among 13 teams in the Big Sky at 3-5 and is picked to place eighth this fall by both the league’s media and coaches.

But Burton sees the Vikings — who lost four conference games by a total of 16 points a year ago — at the precipice of greatness, ready to take the last step to the Promised Land.

“To win a championship, you have to play well, finish games, stay healthy and have a little bit of luck,” PSU’s fifth-year coach says. “Unfortunately, things didn’t work in our favor last year, but I don’t think anyone who saw us would argue we weren’t on the verge of something special.”

Portland State returns 14 starters, including All-America punter Kyle Loomis, junior quarterback Kieran McDonagh and second-team all-Big Sky receiver Kasey Closs from a team that led the conference in total offense (540.5 yards per game) with balance (277.5 rushing, 263.0 passing) and averaged 34.9 points per game in its pistol attack.

The Vikings have only four starters back, however, from a defensive unit that yielded 288.7 yards per game through the air in 2013, last in the Big Sky.

Sounds like a toxic mix for Saturday’s opener at Oregon State and senior quarterback Sean Mannion, who threw for a Pac-12 record 4,662 yards and 37 touchdowns last season.

But Burton believes the PSU secondary is up to the challenge.

“I thought we got a lot better there last year,” Burton says, “and we’re a lot better now than we were last season. At the end of the year, we were starting a sophomore (Aaron Sibley) and a true freshman (Jesuit High grad Xavier Coleman). Those guys have some experience now.”

Burton says he feels “awesome” about the team he will send onto the Reser Stadium field Saturday.

“We lost nine scholarship seniors” from the 2013 team, says the former University of Washington safety, who coached at Oregon State and Nevada before succeeding Jerry Glanville at the PSU helm in 2009. “I feel good about the experience we have. I don’t think I’ve ever had a (training) camp like this — maybe anywhere — in terms of the level of buying and the energy the kids come with every day.”

It’s a big year for Burton, 38, blessed with a bright football mind and engaging personality but only an 18-27 record (11-21 Big Sky) in his four years at Portland State. Glanville didn’t leave him a lot of talent, and there was — still is — catching up to do in terms of facilities and coaching salaries in comparison to the Vikings’ Big Sky brethren.

At some point, though, the results of building a program have to show up on the scoreboard. Athletic director Torre Chisholm is mindful of the progress but also the expectations from those who follow the PSU program.

“I like a lot of things I’ve seen at practice,” Chisholm says. “There’s a lot of good quality and depth across the field. That’s encouraging. But we have to translate it onto the field.

“A lot has been said about last season. We were field goals away from being a nine-win team. That’s the biggest challenge — taking the experience and talent and intangibles and making it all work so we can put up W’s. It has to translate to the win-loss column. That’s the reality of sports in this day and age.”

Chisholm has hired Dave Hersh’s public relations team to help create a buzz around the Vikings’ football team. In the end, the best PR vehicle is performance.

“With their promotions and activities, they plan to make our games a great event regardless of how the team performs,” Chisholm says. “The trick is to have the promotions in place, so when your team plays competitively, you can capture the fan base.

“I’m confident we’re have the promotions team in place. If somehow we can turn the corner and tap into our potential and have success, it will be a good year for us.”

After a 2-9 initial season under Burton in 2009, the Vikings went 7-4 in 2010, prompting Chisholm to give the coach a two-year contract extension that goes through next season. They backtracked to 3-8 in 2012 before splitting a dozen games a year ago.

An eight- or nine-win season this fall would likely trigger another extension, which allows recruits to know the coach is going to stick around for a while.

Problem is, the FCS Viks are starting with one hand tied behind their backs by playing Pac-12 opponents OSU and Washington State in two of the first three games.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Burton says.

If they go 7-3 against their FCS foes, that’s indication of progress. Anything less than that could send Burton into 2015 in a lame-duck situation.

“You like to judge everything holistically,” Chisholm says, “including academics, the development of student-athletes, the building of a full program. A lot of things are positive in those areas. I hate to say it, but in Division I athletics, you can be fantastic with all of those things, but you still have to bring the success on the field.

“I expect a winning season. With the work they’ve put in, our student-athletes deserve it. Our loyal fans deserve it. And the community (with which) we’re trying to re-establish a connection, they deserve to support a winning program.”

Portland State’s conference schedule isn’t bad. The Vikings play Weber State, North Dakota and Idaho State — three of the four teams below them in the standings in 2013 — and have the top two teams of a year ago, Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona at home.

If the pressure is on, Burton doesn’t sound like it.

“Honestly, I don’t think I could be more pleased with where we’re at going into the season,” he says. “We have great kids who play hard and love the game. They understand how close they were last year to the greatest Division I season in the history of the school. They have a much better understanding of the little things that add up to being a winner.”

Burton admits his players are aware that Oregon State has twice lost to FCS opponents in season openers in recent years.

“But this isn’t the Oregon State team of years past,” he says. “We know what the Beavers are capable of. We also know what we can do. If we play to our capabilities, we’re pretty good, no matter who we play against.”

On Saturday at Reser, the Vikings will get the opportunity to begin to prove it.

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