GRANTS PASS — Southern Oregon head coach Craig Howard could only shake his head in exasperation following Saturday's season-opening loss to Rocky Mountain, a team that in only two years has become the Raiders' surprise nemesis in the Frontier Conference.
"We made enough mistakes for the entire season," Howard said. "We shot ourselves in the foot."
And for the second year in a row, it was the Battlin' Bears holding the smoking gun.
Bryce Baker completed 34 of 51 passes for 517 yards and three touchdowns, giving him more than 1,000 yards passing in two career games against SOU, and the Rocky Mountain defense came up with two crucial stops in the last seven minutes to preserve a 35-30 victory at Mel Ingram Field.
Southern Oregon's Austin Dodge had a monster game of his own, completing 38 of 52 passes for 392 yards and two TDs, but couldn't connect with receiver Teran Togia on fourth-and-13 from the Rocky Mountain 18 with 2 minutes, 25 seconds to go in the game, effectively ending the 14th-ranked Raiders' comeback hopes.
The loss was SOU's second straight to Rocky Mountain (2-0) since the Raiders joined the Frontier Conference last season. It was also SOU's first home loss — though the game was not played at Raider Stadium, it's considered a home game — since Howard took over the Raiders in 2011.
"Rocky is a great team," Dodge said. "They're well coached, they have a lot of great players, they play physical, they play fast."
Playing catchup for most of the day, the Raiders had a chance to reclaim the lead when they forced a Rocky Mountain punt and took over at their own 23 with 9:25 to go in the game. The drive flamed out in Rocky Mountain territory when Dodge's third-and-10 pass to Dylan Young fell incomplete, and the Raiders' fake punt pass by Colin Amsler was intercepted by Wyatt Johnson at the Bears' 41.
Young led SOU's revamped receiving corps with 11 catches for 135 yards and a touchdown.
A rare mistake by Baker gave the Raiders new life moments later, when the 6-foot-3 junior quarterback from Nevada rolled out to his right and threw an ill-advised pass that was picked off by SOU's Hest Altenbach at midfield.
Southern Oregon couldn't make the Bears pay, however, converting a pair of high-pressure third downs before committing a costly holding penalty. That turned a first-and-10 at the 15 into a first-and-20 at the 25, and four plays later Dodge tried to threat the needle, throwing a desperation laser into the teeth of Rocky Mountain's secondary. Togia was in position to make the catch but so were two Bears' defenders, and safety Kyle Mai batted the ball away for the crucial stop.
"We went four verticals and they dropped all their players knowing that we were going to throw for the sticks," Dodge said of the fourth-down play. "I tried to fit a ball and it just got batted down. It's a tough loss."
"Usually in key situations you call your best plays to your best players and you do it so many times in practice that in the games it's routine, but we didn't execute it," Howard said. "It would have been an awesome catch and we would have won it, but we didn't so we go back to the drawing board and go back to the practice field, stay strong and keep coaching."
After a back-and-forth struggle through most of the first half the Battlin' Bears mounted a 70-yard touchdown drive near the end of the first half and an 80-yard TD drive to start the second half to take a 28-17 lead, its largest of the game. They never trailed again.
The Raiders got back within 28-24 on Dodge's 3-yard touchdown pass to Young one minute later, but Rocky Mountain — picked to finish fourth in the eight-team league — answered with a beast of a drive, a methodical 75-yard, 20-play march that chewed up six and a half minutes, saw the Bears convert six third downs and ended with Clint Linthicum plowing into the end zone from the 2 with six minutes to go in the third quarter.
Baker delivered clutch passes on three of those third-down plays to keep the drive going, including a seven-yard strike to Andrew McCullouch on third-and-six. McCullouch finished with seven catches for 155 yards and one touchdown.
"Save that last interception he threw, I thought (Baker) did some great stuff," Rocky Mountain head coach Brian Armstrong said. "That last one makes you want to pull your hair out, but I'm proud of all our guys. We had a lot of guys that stepped up and played big today."
The game featured two of the most prolific offenses in NAIA football, and those units did not disappoint. Rocky Mountain finished with 593 yards of offense and SOU wasn't far behind with 542, including 150 on the ground. SOU running back Zach Marshall gained 108 yards on 24 carries, and former South Medford receiver Ryan Retzlaff caught 11 passes for 96 yards. Retzlaff — whose brother Matt caught two passes for 22 yards — saw his role expanded after starting receiver Sean McShane suffered a knee injury at the end of a 42-yard punt return late in the first quarter.
Both teams saw promising drives end in disaster with costly fumbles. Rocky Mountain blew an 86-yard drive when Cake Vukonich coughed up the ball at the end of a nine-yard reception, and SOU's Randy Tyler recovered at the Raider 3. Later, the Raiders returned the favor when Marshall fumbled a handoff from Dodge and Rocky Mountain's Brendo Johnson recovered at the Bears' 4 with 1:44 to go in the third quarter, preserving Rocky Mountain's 35-24 lead.
The Raiders' final mistake was costly as well — a facemask penalty on first-and-14 that gave the Bears a first down and allowed the visitors to run out the clock.
"Inconsistency on minor things (hurt)," Young said. "Catching the ball, blocking, getting the handoff from the quarterback — just little things like that. I think if we tighten that stuff up this week in practice we'll be back on track as an offense.
"We have a team that's a family here, so everyone here has each other's back. We all have one goal in mind and that's to win a national championship. All we can do now is prepare Monday and take it day by day."
Rocky Mountain 35,Southern Oregon 30
At Grants Pass
Rocky Mountain 7 14 14 0 —35
Southern Oregon 3 14 7 6 —30
SOU — FG Amsler 23
RM — Olson 74 pass from Baker (Steska kick)
SOU — M. Retzlaff 1 run (Rosas kick)
RM — Olson 3 run (Steska kick)
SOU — M. Retzlaff 3 run (Rosas kick)
RM — McCullouch 34 pass from Baker (Steska kick)
RM — McCreery 7 pass from Baker (Steska kick)
SOU — Young 3 pass from Dodge (Rosas kick)
RM — Linthicum 2 run (Steska kick)
SOU — M. Retzlaff 10 pass from Dodge (Dodge pass failed)
First Downs 27 29
Rushes-Yards 35-76 38-150
Passing Yards 517 392
Comp-Att-Int 34-51-2 38-56-2
Total Yards 593 542
Punts 4-42.5 3-44.3
Fumbles-lost 2-1 2-1
Penalties-yards 6-46 6-66
Rocky Mountain — Linthicum 7-44, Olson 12-33, Payne 3-5, Anderson 3-3, Baker 9-(-1), Cattelan 1-(-8).
Southern Oregon — Marshall 24-104, Dodge 6-21, Tow 3-15, M. Retzlaff 5-10.
Rocky Mountain — Baker 34-51-2 517.
Southern Oregon — Dodge 38-52-1 392, Amsler 0-1-1 0.
Rocky Mountain — McCullouch 8-177, Olson 5-97, Aiken 5-72, Cattelan 3-67, McGrath 3-27, McCreery 2-16, Vukonich 2-14, Anderson 1-12, Vanzee 1-9, Schaub 1-9, Robinson 1-8, Wohlfeil 1-7, Payne 1-2.
Southern Oregon — Young 12-140, R. Retzlaff 11-96, McShane 5-92, Marshall 5-28, M. Retzlaff 2-22, Sierra 2-11, Togia 1-3.