December 04, 2015

(STATS) - There may not be a more surprising team hosting a second-round playoff game than sixth-seeded Portland State.

In its first playoff game in 15 years, it will face perhaps the FCS' hottest team.

In a matchup between schools that employ similar offenses featuring running quarterbacks, the No. 5 Vikings face 15th-ranked Northern Iowa on Saturday night with a spot in the quarterfinals on the line.

Few gave Portland State (9-2) much of a thought on the season's onset, at least the media, who picked the Vikings to finish 12th in the 13-team Big Sky. The low expectations weren't surprising considering they were coming off a 3-9 season and were being led by an interim coach in Bruce Barnum.

All Barnum did was direct Portland State to a 5-0 record against ranked FCS opponents, two wins over FBS programs, a second-place finish in the Big Sky and the school's first playoff appearance since 2000. Along the way he was rewarded with a five-year contract extension and was named the Big Sky Coach of the Year.

"Now we got the Panthers coming to town," Barnum said. "Playing football in December - fun stuff."

Northern Iowa (8-4) is no stranger to December football.

Earning an 18th berth to the playoffs after finishing tied for third in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, UNI rolled to a 53-17 win over Eastern Illinois in last Saturday's playoff opener for a sixth straight victory.

The Panthers have been dominant during the run, averaging 50.5 points in their last four games while allowing an average of 12.0 in the past six.

"I thought we had a good football team and it's really taking life here as of late," coach Mark Farley said. "The last six, seven weeks have been very good to us and we're playing good football right now."

The Panthers are trying to move to 3-0 on the season against Big Sky teams after defeating Eastern Washington and Cal Poly. This will be their first meeting with the Vikings, who also beat Cal Poly and Eastern Washington.

UNI has found success on the ground, running the ball on 67 percent of its snaps, but Barnum said his team will have to respect the pass. Aaron Bailey only attempted 11 passes last weekend but had touchdown throws of 52, 41 and 32 yards.

"You run it, you run it, you make 'em stop it, when they do stop it you keep running it and then all of a sudden you pop a couple over the top and you score," Barnum said. "(Bailey is) an athlete and he's got athletes to work with."

Bailey was named the MVC Newcomer of the Year after rushing for 1,101 yards and 17 touchdowns, school records for a quarterback. The transfer from Illinois has passed for 1,524 yards with 12 TDs.

His Portland State counterpart has a similar resume.

Alex Kuresa, a former wide receiver at BYU, was the Big Sky Newcomer of the Year, running for 707 yards while throwing for 1,870 and scoring 23 total touchdowns.

David Jones joins Kuresa in the backfield and finished third in the Big Sky in rushing with 1,080 yards and averaged 6.4 on 169 attempts.

The Vikings are 10th in the FCS in rushing, averaging 257.0 yards, while the Panthers are 16th at 228.8 per game.

"The speed they have on offense is something we're talking about on the field with our defense," Barnum said. "To have a chance in this football game, we're going to have to be as solid as tackling - one-on-one and getting hats on the ball - as we can."

Protecting the football also will be key, as Portland State is 10th in the FCS with 28 takeaways - one more than UNI.

The Vikings' Patrick Onwuasor, a first-team all-Big Sky selection and finalist for the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year, is tied for the FCS lead with nine interceptions.

The Panthers are led by the MVC Defensive Player of the Year in Deiondre' Hall, who picked off six passes and returned two for touchdowns to set a school record.

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