GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) — Portland State coach Nigel Burton made a bold claim this week when asked about why his special teams have been so strong.
"I think we spend more time on special teams than, I would venture to say, anyone in the country," Burton said. "It's an important phase to us. I think that's why we see results."
The Vikings special teams are a weapon that concerns the University of North Dakota as the teams prepare to meet in Saturday's 47th annual Potato Bowl at the Alerus Center.
UND led the country with 11 blocked kicks last season, while Portland State had nine (seven blocked punts).
The Vikings picked up another extra-point block in the team's season-opening 38-20 win over NAIA power Carroll College last week.
Burton said that in scrimmages he doesn't let his special teams starters off the field until they block a punt or kick, even if that means 20-some reps.
"It's about effort, focus and time," Burton said.
Portland State also has one of the best kickers in the country in preseason All-American Zach Brown, who has connected on 60 career field goals. He owns 10 school records.
But Brown's status for Saturday's game is unclear. He was rolled into during Portland State's first extra-point attempt against Carroll College and didn't return. Sophomore Nick Fernandez relieved Brown against Carroll and connected on his only attempt from 34 yards out.
Portland State has led the Big Sky in rushing each of the last two seasons. Although the Vikings have a pair of newcomers in the backfield, the team doesn't expect to skip a beat.
PSU is expected to start true freshman Kieran McDonagh at quarterback, a position that does a lot of running in the Vikings offense. Last year, senior quarterback Connor Kavanaugh rushed for more than 1,000 yards.
McDonagh, at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, is a quarterback with a linebacker's body. He was 8-for-16 for 192 yards and two touchdowns against Carroll. He rushed five times for 33 yards but also had a 20-yard run.
"He did a great job," Burton said. "He distributed the ball well and made plays with his feet when things weren't there."
The Vikings also have a new face at running back in Maryland transfer D.J. Adams, who rushed for 87 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries in his debut.
"D.J. had a great offseason changing his body," Burton said. "He still runs with power, but he's more explosive."
The 5-foot-10, 210-pound junior rushed for 239 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman at Maryland. The 11 scores were a school freshman record.
Although Portland State is a Big Sky member, the game is a non-conference matchup. UND's Potato Bowl foe originally was expected to be Central Arkansas, which bought out of the game.
"It's a unique opportunity to go up there," Burton said. "They have a great facility, a great team and a great coaching staff. It should be a fun trip."
UND coach Chris Mussman said his team is looking forward to the Big Sky preview. UND also has played Montana and Idaho State in non-conference games during its transition to the NCAA Division I ranks.
"Our guys understand what they're up against," Mussman said. "It's a chance to set the tone as we approach the Big Sky in two more weeks."