You might think there’s not much to be learned about an FCS team that lost its opener 72-19 against a G5 school. And it’s true, Portland St gave up a 42-0 second half to Nevada which was pretty much unwatchable.
But the first half was pretty enjoyable! PSU scored the first nine points of the game, and were only down 11 at halftime. In the first quarter alone there was a safety, a pick-six, a blocked PAT, two trick plays, about 6,000 goofy ad reads for local businesses, and the revelation that the color commentator is moonlighting from his regular gig as a Reno high school science teacher.
More importantly, Nevada is where hall-of-fame head coach Chris Ault and current Oregon RB coach Jim Mastro invented the pistol offense, and they still use the formation today, providing some interesting insight into how a defense might deal with it.
Portland St’s Offense
On offense, the problem is that the Vikings just don’t have an o-line that can block at an FBS level. I didn’t see evidence of bad coaching and there were very few penalties, it’s just that they simply don’t have the bodies.
The chief result of that being that they couldn’t run the ball at all - their running backs combined for only 81 yards on 30 carries (2.7 YPC). Nevada was 117th at rushing defense in S&P+ last year, so I doubt it’s because they were running into a brick wall. I think their best back is #33 RB Green, a transfer from Ball St, but I don’t have any highlights to show you - his longest run was only 16 yards, and that was deep into garbage time (the second to last play of the game). Actually, I think all of their RBs looked pretty good for their own part - they hit the hole nice and hard and could pick up 3rd & 4th down conversions by pushing the pile in very short yardage situations, plus they had zero ball security problems and blocked pretty well. It was pretty clear to me that the problem simply was the backs getting no help from the line.
The other problem this creates is very little pocket protection from #6 QB Alexander, who was given very little time to throw on just about every snap. Which is a shame, because when he gets even a little bit of time to work in the pocket, Alexander’s got a good strong arm:
The second play of this clip is -- I’m not joking -- the only clean pocket I could find in the entire first half (so naturally the receiver dropped it ... though Oregon fans probably shouldn’t laugh). On the first and third plays, though, Alexander finds by far PSU’s biggest receiving threat, #89 TE Taumoepeau, who got both of the Viks’ touchdowns. Also check out Green making a fantastic cut block on the third play at :20 in the clip.
Fortunately, Alexander is accustomed to working outside of the pocket:
As you can see, he’s got good instincts for escaping pressure, keeps his eyes downfield while scrambling, and can make throws on rollouts as well as improvise. It might seem odd to say, but the fifth play in this clip (at 1:08), which goes for exactly zero yards, is one of the smartest and most nimble pocket performances I’ve ever seen - he makes six different cuts, all the while looking downfield for a passing option, and at the end when he realizes he’s not going to get anything, rather than throw the ball away he heads for the sideline and baits the defender into making a late hit out of bounds to pick up the 1st down.
Portland St’s Defense
On defense, the scheme is a fairly novel 4-2-5, with one of the stand-up backers on the line between a tackle and end. I’ve sometimes seen this called a flex stack defense, though I’m not sure why - there’s not much flex since neither the upfront backer nor the ends really flex out into coverage (that’s what the nickel secondary is for), and there’s no stack with the DTs in 3- and 5-techs and the other backer lined up seven yards directly in front of the center. Oh well; sometimes I think coaches are just making up terminology as they go.
Unfortunately, the secondary just wasn’t able to keep up, and was the biggest reason for the lopsided score - they gave up 420 yards on only 18 completions (23.3 YPC). Here are the best highlights I could find for them in pass coverage:
The first play shows #23 CB M. Brown keeping his cool and shutting down a 4th down sideline route out of a bunch formation, which isn’t easy. The interception is much more the product of an ill-advised throw under pressure that wobbles right in between the high-low option receivers, but give credit to #8 CB Howell for changing direction and hauling it in.
However, I thought the front seven acquitted themselves pretty well:
Highlighted here are #96 DE Ross coming off the edge and beating the tackle pretty often, #58 DT House getting a lot of pressure up the middle, leading tackler #46 LB Jackett filling his lanes well, and #9 S Barnes cleaning up. Schematically, PSU’s tendency when they’re looking at a pistol formation run is to squeeze down with the outside linemen and wrap either an upfront linebacker or a tackle around to the playside as indicated by the QB’s rotation.
The defensive highlight, of course, were these guys getting a great push into the backfield after a beautiful punt pinned Nevada deep:
So Oregon and Portland St have something else in common: last weekend they both got to do the Safety Dance.