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Big Sky football notes: Portland State tries to regroup for EWU

Portland State head coach Bruce Barnum, right, has had a rough season after being named FCS coach of the year last season. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)
Portland State head coach Bruce Barnum, right, has had a rough season after being named FCS coach of the year last season. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)

Barney Ball has taken a few bad bounces this year.

“A yard short, that’s our world right now,” Portland State coach Bruce Barnum said Wednesday. “It’s a game of inches, and we’ve got to find that inch.”

The Vikings have one more chance Friday night on Senior Day against playoff-bound Eastern Washington at Providence Park in downtown Portland.

After that, Barnum and his coaches will try turn things around – again.

What a difference a year makes. Last year, PSU was coming off a 3-9 season that ended with the firing of Nigel Burton. Barnum, the defensive coordinator, started 2015 as an interim head coach and wound up Football Championship Subdivision national coach of the year.

Barney Ball, they called it at PSU, which made the postseason for the first time in 15 years.

Meanwhile, Eastern Washington and coach Beau Baldwin went 6-5 and missed the postseason for the first time in four years.

“Last year, I was calling Beau about how you handled the bye week before the playoffs. Now I’m seeing the other side,” Barnum said of the Vikings’ 3-7 season.

PSU’s season was marked by tragedy months before it began. In January, redshirt freshman linebacker A.J. Schlatter died of complications from a tonsillectomy.

Three months later, as the Vikings began spring practice, junior lineman Kyle Smith died of an apparent drug overdose.

“It hurts,” Barnum told the Portland Tribune last summer. “It will be 20 years from now, and it will still tear my heart.”

On the field, the Vikings had high hopes that were undermined by youth, injuries and several frustrating losses. Last week at Sacramento State, the Vikings had first-and-goal at the 10-yard-line in the final minute but couldn’t get the tying touchdown in a 42-35 loss.

PSU also has lost close ones to postseason contenders Weber State (14-10) and Northern Colorado (56-49 in overtime).

Offense hasn’t been the problem: PSU has scored 337 points in conference games, just four behind runner-up Cal Poly (Eastern leads with 451).

However, the Vikings’ defense is giving up 481 yards a game, including 262 on the ground.

Meanwhile, Eastern is back on top. The Eagles are ranked third in FCS and chasing another Big Sky Conference title.

“Cooper and the Mighty Crew,” Barnum calls them, referring to All-American wide receiver Cooper Kupp and the Eagles’ offense, which averages 552 yards of total offense and leads the nation in passing yards.

An Eastern alum, he’ll be rooting for Eastern in the postseason.

“You’re always proud of where you came from,” Barnum said.

Baldwin not in running for top award

Despite turning the Eagles from also-rans to a national contender this year, Baldwin isn’t in the running for national coach of the year.

Finalists were announced this week for the Eddie Robinson Award, the top award in FCS, and Baldwin isn’t among the 13 finalists.

Each FCS conference is allowed one nominee, and the Big Sky opted for Bubba Schweigert of North Dakota, which is 9-2 and has clinched at least a share of the conference title.

Coaching awards are often based on expectations; North Dakota has never made the FCS playoffs and was picked to finish fifth by Big Sky coaches and fourth by the media.

Eastern is a perennial FCS power and was picked fourth by the coaches and fifth by the media.

The award will be presented at the national awards banquet on the eve of the NCAA Division I FCS Championship Game on Jan. 6 in Frisco, Texas.

EWU, others have plenty on line

A playoff berth is a lock the Eagles, but they need to win to keep their lofty spot on the national scene when the FCS bracket is revealed Sunday morning.

Eastern is ranked third in the media and coaches’ polls and second in the all-important FCS Committee ranking that was released Monday.

If the Eagles get the No. 2 seeding, they’ll be guaranteed home-field advantage through the semifinals on Dec. 16-17.

North Dakota (9-2 and finished with the regular season) also has a postseason spot locked up, but several other Big Sky teams are on the bubble, including Cal Poly, Northern Colorado, Montana and Weber State. All are 6-4.

For what it’s worth, STATS predicts Eastern will open the playoffs with a second-round matchup against South Dakota State or San Diego.


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