It was never going to be easy replacing Connor Kavanaugh, Portland State’s quarterback. The Vikings coaching staff mulled the decision all summer. Just days before the season opener against Carroll College, head coach Nigel Burton and offensive coordinator Bruce Barnum finally settled on freshman Kieran McDonagh as the starter.
This time last fall, McDonagh was in the midst of guiding Vancouver’s Skyview High School to a berth in the Washington 4A title game. Now he’s the first true freshman to start multiple games as quarterback for PSU since Neil Lomax in 1977.
Just 18 years old, the business major has thrown for 1,095 yards and eight touchdowns in 2012. He has also added 178 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
But McDonagh has also thrown seven interceptions and given up one fumble this season. It has been a steep learning curve for the freshman, who has experienced both highs and lows during the transition from high school football to college.
While the team is 1-4 overall and 0-2 in conference after last weekend’s loss to Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, McDonagh has shown flashes of promise in his first five starts. Here are three plays that have demonstrated the dual-threat potential PSU’s new quarterback brings to the position:
Running through defenders (Sept. 1)
The Scenario: After a Carroll College Fighting Saints punt, the Vikings took over at their own 22, leading 14-9 with 9:21 remaining before halftime.
The Play: On the sixth play of the drive, the Vikings faced third and 10 at the Carroll 34. McDonagh took the snap and scrambled right. Eluding two defenders, he cut down the middle of the field. Bulldozing into linebacker Joe Dunning, McDonagh finished a 20-yard run to keep the drive alive.
The Result: Five plays later, D.J. Adams leapt into the end zone for what would prove the decisive points in a 38-20 victory.
Controlling a secondary (Sept. 15)
The Scenario: After a 79-yard touchdown drive, PSU was down 52-0 to University of Washington. They took over the ball at their own 25, 8:46 left in the third quarter.
The Play: On third and five, McDonagh surveyed the field. He kept his eyes left, tracking Thomas Carter and leading the defense, before finding Nevin Lewis with a step on Marcus Peters along the right sideline. Lofting a spiral 40 yards, Lewis caught it in stride and beat
Peters to the end zone.
The Result: The points prevented a shutout. PSU would allow no more Huskies points and McDonagh would add a rushing touchdown in the 52-13 defeat.
Fighting to the final play (Sept. 22)
The Scenario: Southern Utah University had just taken their first lead of the game at Jeld-Wen Field, up 49-42. McDonagh and the Vikings took over at their own 33 with 1:29 remaining.
The Play: McDonagh led the offense 65 yards downfield, picking up two first downs on a 25-yard pass to Lewis. On the final play, one yard from the end zone, McDonagh kept the ball and fought for the goal line.
The Result: The officials ruled that McDonagh was short of the goal line. The
Vikings fell to 1-3 in their conference opener.
A defense in transition
Two games into 2012, head coach Nigel Burton dismissed defensive coordinator Eric Jackson after the defense allowed 401 yards and 45 points against University of North Dakota. Jackson’s departure completed the turnover of the Vikings defensive staff from 2011 after three assistants left in the off-season.
“I just felt as though we needed to make a change in some way to get ourselves to a championship level of play on that side of the ball,” Burton told the Portland Tribune a week after the termination. “And there were some other factors involved, and that was the decision I made and it was a hard one.”
Since Burton took over defensive duties from Jackson, the Vikings have shown mixed signs of improvement. Against Washington they gave up only 220 passing yards and held the Huskies under five yards a carry. In their first two Big Sky games, they allowed 86 rushing yards a game.
Yet the team is 1-4 after losing last Saturday to Northern Arizona. The defense continues to be strong against the run, allowing 14 fewer yards a game than 2011. The Vikings are ranked 18th in the nation in yards allowed per carry (3.18) and have forfeited just five touchdowns.
The passing defense, on the other hand, allows 45 more yards a game than last year. Their 16 passing touchdowns conceded are tied for worst in the nation. Burton has shifted his secondary, returning Michael Williams to cornerback after experimenting with him at safety.
The team’s search for a defensive coordinator continues, though no candidates have yet emerged.