This will be the ninth season at the reins for head coach Barnum, and fourteenth overall with the team after spending the previous five years as offensive coordinator. His first season taking over as HC from Nigel Burton in 2015 was a banner year – the Vikings went 9-3 with FBS wins over Washington State and North Texas, earning STATS FCS and Big Sky Coach of the Year honors for Barnum. But ever since then it’s been quite a struggle, as the team is 21-47 from 2016 onwards with no winning seasons or FBS wins. Last year PSU finished with a 4-7 record, with their season finale being an entertaining but astonishing 49-42 loss to a Cal Poly team that was 1-9 at the time.
In the Sagarin ratings which rank all 261 Division-I teams (FBS and FCS combined), Portland St finished the 2022 season 194th, and is currently projected at 177th for the 2023 season. For reference, the Eastern Washington team that Oregon played as last year’s FCS opponent finished 180th in Sagarin, and the lowest ranked FBS opponent on Oregon’s 2022 schedule was Colorado at 143rd.
PSU uses a pistol offense with read-option runs and spread out receivers, typically in 11-personnel with some 12-personnel for short-yardage runs. The offense was the better side of the ball for the Vikings, with 389.5 yards per game in raw stats, good for the 46th national rank among FCS schools.
They return the best athlete on the team, starter #15 QB Chachere, although both of the backup QBs who played behind him last year have left the program. As a passer, Chachere is pretty accurate on short-to-intermediate throws, and is remarkably calm under pressure in the pocket. He has the arm strength to throw deep passes and the offense gives him plenty of license to do so, but his mechanics are unconventional and that results in a lot of inconsistency on such throws – I’ve seen him put together streaks of gorgeous rainbows, and alternate with wildly off target balls. Possibly the most valuable skill that Chachere brings to the offense, especially against tougher defenses, is excellent scrambling ability – both athleticism and the knack for when and which direction to break the pocket – and as such he’s the team’s leading rusher in raw stats.
In the advanced stats I gather through charting, PSU’s passing efficiency is underwater, with just a 45.3% per-play success rate (112 successes vs 135 failures) on designed passing plays given the down & distance last year, excluding garbage time and their game against non-NCAA member Lincoln University of California. But they have decent yardage numbers when they do connect through the air – they average 7.64 adjusted yards per pass attempt and 14.2% of their passes gain 15+ yards.
Those numbers reflect a lot of incompletions, but good air yards and yards after the catch on the completions they do make, and an offense that doesn’t waste time with a lot of low-impact passing playcalls. That leads to a big split in their 3rd down situational effectiveness based on yardage – the Vikings are highly efficient on designed passing plays when it’s 3rd & medium at almost 64%, when running is still an option for them or Chachere can scramble for it, but as soon as it’s 3rd & long their efficiency collapses to an abysmal 28% because the defense knows it’s a pass and this offense isn’t generally successful when it’s one-dimensional.
For receiving personnel, almost everything was going to three primary wideouts last year. Two of them have departed, Beau Kelly and Mataio Talalemotu, along with one of two backups, Emmanuel Daigbe. PSU returns the third of the primary targets, #7 WR Bennett, plus the other backup, #8 WR Griffin, but there were practically no other throws to anybody else on the team. The Vikings got a transfer portal addition here, #6 WR Braddock from San José St, who’s a four-year veteran with 70 career catches under his belt. I’ve happened to watch some of Braddock’s film for other projects and would characterize him as a reliable possession receiver rather than a downfield burner; still, he’s vastly more experienced than the rest of the receiving options and I expect him to be one of the top targets right away.
Here’s a representative sample of successful called passing plays from last season:
(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)
- :00 – Good processing of the defense here, the QB sees the field safety has joined the nickel in pursuing the deep crosser to the boundary, leaving the wide side completely open to scramble to, and there’s no hesitation once that choice is made.
- :20 – I think Chachere spots the corner getting antsy on this cat blitz beforehand, but regardless he knows his hot route and drops it off the back coolly, who now has access to the sideline undefended.
- :38 – Here’s Bennett burning the DB on a flag route on the first play of the game; Barnum, who’s also the offensive playcaller, likes to go for these opening stunners. The clip also shows Chachere’s low release angle and unorthodox footwork as he doesn’t really point his hips and step into the throw.
- :54 – This rollout and throw on the hoof requires a lot of athleticism to place accurately. Also note how the pass pattern is unpolluted with conservative hitches – everybody’s running past the sticks.
And the unsuccessful passing plays:
- :00 – Both tackles are getting beat here, and there’s just no way out.
- :12 – Chachere’s accuracy was excellent in this game, going 17 of 22. His only misses came off of pressure like on this play, when he was forced off platform and his already suspect mechanics turned it into a wobbly throw that wouldn’t fit into the tight window in the back of the endzone.
- :27 – Probably should have seen the nickel fire coming given that stackup in the secondary, and there’s no hot to that side of the field to take advantage. This shows off Chachere’s biggest processing issue, which is staring down his first read too long – he needs to see it’s not there immediately and get it to Bennett in the opposite slot.
- :35 – Here’s that deep ball inconsistency. Two plays later he threw a 65-yd touchdown.
PSU used five different running backs last year, though every one of them missed at least three games and several missed more than that. They bring back all but one of those, plus they add a seldom used low 3-star back from UCLA, #23 RB Grubb (his carries vs the rest of the Bruins are displayed on this chart). It’s hard to say, presuming everybody is at full health, who’ll be the primary ballcarrier on Saturday, given that some of the backups showed out pretty well.
The Vikings were above water in rushing efficiency at 52.5% (159 vs 144), and good yardage numbers as well with 5.5 adjusted YPC and 16% gaining 10+ yards. I think a big part of that was a fairly experienced offensive line, which graded out much better in run blocking than pass protection on my tally sheet in the games I charted.
There was some significant shuffling of the line during the year as they dealt with injuries, however. The left and right tackles swapped positions midyear, then they lost the (new) LT for the season and the RG had to take over for him with a replacement (a low 3-star from UW) coming off the bench to fill in at RG. At points they even had to have a true freshman playing LT.
The upshot for 2023 is that one of the departures – the starting right then left tackle – is pretty manageable, as I thought he had the worse grades of the two and they had multiple guys come off the bench to deal with replacing him. They return the other starting tackle, as well as the starting LG and RG. I think former guard will keep his job and the latter will slide back over and become the new tackle, while the bench player from UW will become the new starting RG, since that was their go-to solution last year. The big challenge, however, is replacing longtime starting center Tyson Pauling, who as far as I can tell has been the only Viking to snap the ball since some time in 2019. Whoever replaces him, and I have no idea who that’ll be or what his snapping experience is like, will be calling out the defense in Autzen stadium for the first time in college.
Here’s a sample of successful designed rushes:
- :00 – Pretty much the only successful designed runs PSU got going in Seattle were draw plays, taking advantage of that defense’s gullibility by dropping out both an inside and outside linebacker deep and immediately on reading pass and then sending a lineman downfield to womp the undersized safety. The back here, #21 RB Van Buren, was PSU’s most experienced and a former Boise St mid 3-star, but missed most of the rest of the season with an injury; they get him back in 2023.
- :10 – Nice play design here, a frontside trap with a pulling guard and the defense follows the sweep, with the QB reading it properly. Chachere embarrasses virtually every defender on the field on this long run with some great moves.
- :32 – Gutty run here, he converts it by inches and has to break one tackle and go into more contact to convert a 4th down.
- :49 – This is #28 RB Malary, who got the most touches in the room after becoming the primary back towards the end of the year due to some injuries. He’s a pretty good short-yardage toughness runner, as on this play, but against poor defenses (and he played a couple) he broke off several big runs which propped up his YPC average significantly.
And unsuccessful rushes:
- :00 – PSU is in 12-personnel here to see if they could get anything going against a famously poor run defense; with eight in the box in response they got nothing and pretty much immediately abandoned the run after this except a few surprise plays.
- :09 – The backside end is supposed to get picked up by the pulling right guard here, but he’s just not fast enough to get it done.
- :17 – This was a pretty baffling problem I kept seeing from both the returning guards, just not making square contact with the d-lineman and letting them immediately into the backfield.
- :24 – At this point in the season the injury situation is really starting to get unmanageable – there are two different guard-tackle swaps, the freshman backup LT is playing his first snap ever, and they have their change-of-pace back #17 RB Craig at 185 lbs (since he’s one of the few ballcarriers left unhurt) trying to run through contact.
PSU’s defense is a 4-2-5 that uses fairly strict boundary/field distinctions for the linebacker and secondary personnel assignments, except the “Rover” nickelback who aligns independently although usually simply to the strongside. This was the weaker side of the ball by a significant margin last year; in raw stats they ranked 114th among 130 FCS schools in yards surrendered per game at 459.5.
The defense in 2022 was led by a host of upperclassmen, and in 2023 the Vikings lose more than half of their tackling production from last season due to departures, mostly from graduations. There’s a very stark division between which positions were and were not hit by these departures – the d-line lost all four senior starters and the safeties lost all three, but the linebackers and cornerbacks return effectively everyone.
Compounding this peculiarity is that these units’ grades on my tally sheet are the opposite of their seniority. The players whom I liked the most were the backers, the corners, and the young backup safeties, while the guys who graded out the lowest were exactly those starting d-linemen and upperclassmen starting safeties. This may mean that the damage of losing those starters in the back end of the defense has a minimal impact, especially since all three backup safeties got so much rotational time (one of them even started week 2 against UW). However, I can’t say the same about the guys up front, since I basically didn’t see any of the backup d-linemen outside of garbage time at all. Even though the starters didn’t have great grades and the rush efficiency was poor, it’s entirely possible – perhaps likely – that the rookies replacing them lack the wherewithal at this point to do any better and may need significant time just to get up to their predecessors’ level.
From charting and controlling for garbage time, the Vikings’ rush defense was their poorest quadrant of play from scrimmage on either side of the ball by a large margin. Their defensive success rate against designed runs was just 44.3% (98 vs 123), and they gave up 6.3 adjusted YPC with more than 22.5% of opponent rushes gaining 10+ yards.
The vast majority of adverse plays come down to the line getting beat, but since those linemen aren’t returning in 2023 I don’t think perfectly representative film clips would be valuable to examine. Instead I’ve selected a representative set of plays for how the returning backers and secondary players performed in rush defense. Here are the successful rush plays for those returning defenders:
- :00 – Disciplined defense here, the corner sets the edge to deny the sideline and force the back inside, while the backer flows to the play with square shoulders and beats the center.
- :07 – The backer here is #31 LB Willingham, who led the team despite being the third guy in the rotation because both starters got eventually got hurt. Again, good job flowing to the play properly.
- :15 – It was basically impossible to assess any of the backup defensive linemen until the last two games, when one of the starters was out. #46 DE Freeman came in for him; on this play he jumps inside instead of setting the edge, allowing the back to leak out, but he doesn’t give up on the play and chases it down after the DB misses.
- :24 – Cal Poly did this weakside slice the entire first half and should have known the backside SAM blitz was coming, and here it is from the “Rover” position.
And the unsuccessful rush defense plays by the back end of the defense:
- :00 – Just physically overmatched here, the backup LB gets thrown to the ground and it takes three DBs to bring down the back.
- :18 – The corner gives up the sideline here jumping inside, which is the safety’s job, and that’s the essential mistake on this play. This was by far the most frequent cause of big rushing plays surrendered, a second-level player not doing his job and trying to do someone else’s.
- :36 – This is the backup end again, not setting the edge on this sweep play. Backup #29 CB Jackson, who effectively became the starter for most of the season due to an injury, is at a leverage disadvantage since he has to run through the wash but he has good speed to run it down before it does too much damage.
- :46 – The biggest structure issue I noticed with the defensive line, which I would guess will persist with the replacements, is that they tend to get very wide against spread formations, and leave these big B-gaps open for fieldside runs.
Pass defense had more of a mixed record for the Vikings. They had a real problem with tackling and giving up explosive plays, surrendering 8.4 adjusted YPA and allowing more than 18.5% of passes to gain 15+ yards. However, their defense against efficiency passing was pretty decent, with a defensive success rate of 53% (174 vs 154) overall against designed passing plays, climbing to almost 63% on 3rd & long against the pass.
I’m not entirely positive about this, simply because of the broadcast angles I’m limited to for film study, but experience from parsing where on the field opposing quarterbacks attacked suggests that the returning corners held up fairly well in deep coverage. The rest of my observations are direct – the pass rush tended to come from the backers on blitzes, and the weaknesses in coverage were in the middle of the field.
Here’s a representative sample of successful defenses of passing plays:
- :00 – Smart, layered zone defense here, forcing the QB to go through his complete progressions all the way to the checkdown for a modest gain. On the next play with the same coverage pressure caused an incompletion and the one after the ball sailed and the PSU DB layered behind an intermediate route got an interception.
- :09 – Nice PBU here for returning starter #7 CB Avery, and against one of EWU’s top receivers from their best unit I wrote about last year.
- :23 – This is the backup safety #5 DB Shakir, who got a lot of play last year (along with backups #4 DB Bright and #20 DB Goodman), and is one of the reasons I think losing all the starters isn’t going to hurt them that much.
- :31 – The rusher who gets the sack is #32 LB Henry, the smallest of the six guys in that unit but who got a lot of run in the rotation as a backup on blitzes, because he was able to blow past some linemen on the speed rush like this.
And unsuccessful pass play defenses:
- :00 – The MIKE here is returner #0 LB McKenna, the starter but who only played four games due to an injury. I really liked his football IQ and watching him diagnose plays as fast as anybody I’ve seen; here he’s got the play completely cracked and if he were just a little more physically talented he’d have shut this down.
- :14 – I’m not sure how much this is a commentary on the cornerbacks but it was certainly the case that the most vulnerable part of the defense was open middle, between two high safeties and over the backers. By far the most deep shots went right into this hole.
- :29 – Here’s a levels concept over the middle, again stressing the backers and safeties. The coverage ability necessary to take care of each level of the attack just isn’t present.
- :36 – The bizarre, giddy thing about watching the last game of the season was a 1-9 team nailing deep shot after deep shot against this defense, seven different passes of 20+ yards.