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Defense steps up as Viks break camp

Viking Watch


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Quarterback Kieran McDonagh is back for his junior season and is the No. 1 candidate to lead the Portland State Vikings offense after his performance in spring ball and in Sundays annual spring game.For several years, the defense has been the main thing holding Portland State back from being one of the top teams in the Big Sky. While the Vikings have had the offense, they just have not been able to keep opponents from putting up big numbers on the scoreboard.

The Vikings played their annual spring game at Hillsboro Stadium on Sunday evening. And, with former Vikings DeShawn Shead and Neil Lomax as coaches and former Oregon running back De’Anthony Thomas in attendance, the Viks gave some indications that their defense may be better next season. By the end of the night, only 17 total points had been allowed as the White team beat the Green team 10-7.

“I was joking around that everyone asks, ‘When are we going to play championship defense consistently?’ “ Portland State coach Nigel Burton said. “And now that we’re playing great defense, people are like, ‘Well, we wanted more points.’ “

Well, as Ricky Nelson said in his song Garden Party, “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.” And Burton is very pleased with his defense heading into the summer.

“You play pretty good defense and this (a 10-7 spring game) is what’s going to happen,” he said. “I’m really proud of them and the way they stepped up and made plays. Now we’ve got to get that continuing through the season.”

Cornerback Aaron Sibley said the Vikings defense has been learning to play as a team this spring.

“The defense is really solid,” Sibley said. “We’ve got a real good game plan coming in from the spring. Everybody learned and caught on quick. We’re building ourselves as a team. All the individuals do their part. We’re feeling confident going into the year.”

Burton said he believes much of the reason the defense should be better than last season is the experience of the players taking the field.

“A lot of it is age,” Burton said. “Our third year (2012), we had that great freshman class who all played as freshman, and they did what freshman do: They struggled. Last year, we saw improvement because they were sophomores. We infused a few more things. Now we’re expecting them to take the next step.”

Sibley said the notoriety the Vikings offense has gotten in recent years makes the defense hungry to receive the same recognition.

“We try to compete with the offense because they have a reputation and we want our own reputation,” Sibley said. “When you have an offense and a defense with reputations, then you’re bound to win games.”

While the offense did not shine in the spring game, the Vikings always seem to be able to put points on the board. While Burton has not yet made it official that junior quarterback Kieran McDonagh will be the starter in 2014, he figures to be the leading candidate and should be an integral part of everything the offense does.

“Kieran seems real comfortable in the pocket,” Burton said. “There are times he almost stands erect because he knows what’s happening around him, which comes with experience.”

McDonagh totaled 230 yards on 523 plays, with top backup Paris Penn out of Grant High getting 197 yards on 49 plays. McDonagh passed for 201 yards, with Thomas Carter catching five balls for 123 yards.

Penn ran 73 yards for a touchdown that gave the White an early 7-0 lead. McDonagh hit Trevor Dye with a 25-yard TD pass for a 7-7 halftime tie in a game that had four 15-minute running-time quarters.

McDonagh said he is confident the offense is going to light up the scoreboard in 2014.

“We’re going to score a lot of points,” McDonagh said. “We always score a lot of points. But we have the ability of scoring a lot more than we did last year. We lost some guys on the O-line, but we still have a lot of protection. We have a lot of threats at receiver, everyone is coming back, and we can make a lot of plays throwing the ball.”

Burton said he also is happy with how the special teams have improved in the offseason.

“I was really pleased special teams-wise,” he said. “We’re covering better. We’re protecting better. Our field-goal kickers have improved.”

The winning points Sunday came on Ian Boozer’s 30-yard field goal with 1:27 remaining.

Then, Max Lyons picked off a pass — his second interception of the fourth quarter — to end the final White possession.

Perhaps the biggest thing Portland State needs to improve from last season is its mental toughness. Last year, a lack of that resulted in the Vikings blowing second-half leads and losing games it could have won going away. McDonagh said Portland State has been working on that this spring as well.

“In all aspects, we’re trying to become more mentally tough,” McDonagh said, “whether it’s in the weight room, or the classroom, or on the field.”

Portland State opens Aug. 30 at Oregon State. The home opener is Sept. 6 versus Western Oregon. The preseason concludes with a Sept. 13 game at Washington State, and the Vikings will go to Cal Poly Sept. 20 for a non-counting game against a Big Sky

opponent.

PSU’s four conference home games are Oct. 4 against UC Davis, Oct. 18 versus Northern Arizona, Nov. 1 against Idaho State and Nov. 21 with Eastern Washington.