'Barny Ball' key to PSU resurgence
PORTLAND — They call it Barny Ball, and it's taken Portland State to two wins over upper-level opponents and into the FCS playoffs.
Coach Bruce Barnum has led the Vikings (9-2) on a dramatic turnaround — including a season-opening victory over the Pac-12's Washington State — after the team went 3-9 last season.
So what exactly is Barny Ball? Barnum said it's about toughness and persistence. And of course it's a hashtag.
"It started out as blue-collar, tough fundamental football. And it turned into that, on and off the field," Barnum said. "You saw 60 minutes of play, our team never quit, win or lose. We lost two games, and they just showed up for work the next day and worked harder. Those type of things."
Portland State, ranked No. 5 in both the FCS coaches poll and the STATS Top 25, hosts No. 15 Northern Iowa (8-4, 5-3 Missouri Valley Conference) in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs on Saturday.
Portland State, which finished 6-2 in the Big Sky Conference, has never hosted a playoff game.
"I'm, happy for them," Barnum said about his team's journey to the postseason. "In the past, we'd lose so many games by a point, and now all of the sudden we've won them by a point. There were some fun games, some tight games. They played 60 minutes. I wouldn't say surprised. Maybe proud, for this group."
The fun for the Vikings started on Sept. 5, when they visited Washington State for essentially a paycheck game and came away with a 24-17 victory. It was the program's first victory over a Pac-12 opponent in 15 previous tries, and it was just the third victory for the Vikings over an FBS-level team.
The Vikings were 31-point underdogs. That made the win one of the top five biggest upsets, spread-wise, for a game involving an FBS team. For the privilege of traveling — by bus — to Pullman and beating the Cougars, the Vikings were paid $525,000.
Washington State went on to go 8-3 overall. The Cougars were even ranked for two weeks late in the season, putting greater weight on the Vikings' victory.
It was the first game as head coach for Barnum, the offensive coordinator who was elevated last year after the Vikings tied for 10th in the conference and dismissed coach Nigel Burton after five seasons.
Barnum started the season on a one-year tryout contract with Portland State. Because of his success, the Vikings rewarded him with a five-year deal in October. And now he's a finalist for national coach of the year.
"I had a plan, and I had confidence in the plan," he said this week. "Was it going to work this soon? That's a tribute to the coaches that I hired and, honestly, the players we have. And that's what it comes down to. Bottom line is who's playing and who's out there. To put them in the right direction, point them in the right direction, have them believe and have it pay off for them this quick? That's been a highlight."
That victory over the Cougars wasn't the Vikings' lone triumph over an upper-division team. They also routed North Texas 66-7, setting a record for the biggest FCS win over an FBS team.
Following the loss, the Conference USA's Mean Green fired its head coach. North Texas finished 1-11 this season.
Part of the reason that Barny Ball is so effective is it keeps its opponents off balance. For a couple of plays this season, all four of the team's quarterbacks were on the field at the same time. Barnum said his offense borrows a little from Mike Price and Dennis Erickson.
Quarterback Alex Kuresa, who once played wide receiver at BYU, took the majority of the snaps, throwing for 1,870 yards and 16 touchdowns with just five interceptions. He also rushed for 707 yards and seven touchdowns. David Jones, a converted wide receiver, rushed for 1,080 yards and eight touchdowns to lead the Vikings, who are ranked 10th in the nation among FCS teams for rushing offense.
Senior safety Patrick Onwuasor leads the nation with nine interceptions, half of Portland State's 18 picks. The Vikings have forced 28 total turnovers.
"They respect the game, they do. They're close, and I'm not talking coaches — the team, the locker room. For whatever happened, whatever pixie dust showed up, they're a close football team," Barnum said. "They fight for each other."