Portland State desperately needed its solid running game Saturday night against Northern Iowa at Providence Park.
It had an enthusiastic crowd of 8,022 and a defense that seemed up to the task. But the Panthers snuffed PSU's running attack and the Viking receivers couldn't free themselves from the sticky NIU secondary, leaving the home team reflecting on a 29-17 defeat in the second round of the playoffs.
Two long runs of 69 and 59 yards helped the Panthers pull away in the fourth quarter after the defenses had taken over in the third quarter.
"Outstanding defense stymied us in the first half," Portland State Coach Bruce Barnum said. "I liked how the offense responded in the second half when yards were tough. They ran zone, they didn't have to blitz. A strong, physical front seven and they had the back end, as far as safeties and corners to back it up. I thought our defense played well, actually. It kept us in the game. Kudos to them. Some plays got away from them in the second half but they had some pretty good athletes who ran by us."
The Panthers had two 200-yard rushers. Quarterback Aaron Bailey finished with 200 yards on the nose via 26 carries and running back Tyvis Smith got 207 on 21 carries. They were part of a Northern Iowa team that was simply a bit too much for the Vikings to handle.
Barnum was asked what it would take to get his Viks to take that one last small step up to the elite level.
"Nothing against these guys sitting next to me," he said, pointing to two of his players in the interview room. "But we have to recruit better than we have. I mean, that's the game. We have some good athletes. This guy is magic (pointing to quarterback Alex Kuresa). We need to get better speed-wise. The game is speed. It's a game of speed. And out there you saw some size, too."
Kuresa was battered and beaten up by the NIU front four all night and was sacked three times. But he got every yard out of every carry that he could.
Make no mistake, the Vikings are close. And this season may have reawakened all those old-timers who thought the PSU football magic ended with Mouse Davis and Pokey Allen. The Panthers went away impressed with the stadium, the crowd and the atmosphere. Oh yes -- and the PSU football team.
"To the Portland people, we've played a lot of good football teams over the years," said NIU Coach Mark Farley, who is in his 15th season. "What you have in your football team is toughness. A lot of people can run and gun and score points, but your football team is tough and your players kept coming back and that's a reflection of your coach.
"You had a great crowd and your crowd got into it. It was a big-time atmosphere. I thought it was a very nice stadium and the crowd was awesome -- it kept pulling them back in the game."
And if the score didn't come out right for the Vikings, the Panthers proved to be a very good yardstick of where PSU needs to be moving forward.