ASHLAND — To NCAA Division I college football scouts, Melvin Mason had one weakness coming out of high school: speed.
The running back from Vacaville, Calif., was clocked at 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash as a prep junior — not bad, they told him, but not quite good enough to succeed against Division I-caliber athletes.
After last Saturday's performance at Division I Sacramento State, a slightly different scouting report might be appropriate, one that would include words like agile, explosive, powerful. And yes, fast.
"Everybody loved it," Mason said of the 63-56 overtime loss which saw SOU, an NAIA program, take leads of 28-14 and 56-49 on the Hornets of the Big Sky Conference. "We all loved it. It was a great experience for all of us because most people say lower level schools can't compete with a Division I team, but we honestly went out there and proved it — gave it everything we had and we proved that we can compete at that level."
Mason did more than compete. The redshirt freshman cut gaping holes through the Sacramento State defense, rushing for 236 yards and two touchdowns, including TD runs of 76 and 59 yards, and catching five passes for 51 yards and another score. His second touchdown run — the 59-yarder — capped an 82-yard drive and, following the point-after kick, gave the Raiders a seven-point lead with 1 minute, 48 seconds to go in the fourth quarter.
Had the Raiders been able to come through with a defensive stop, Mason would have been credited with spearheading arguably the greatest upset victory in Southern Oregon history. Instead, the Hornets marched 75 yards in 12 plays, converting four third downs in the process, to tie the game with one second left in regulation. They finished off the comeback in overtime, and Mason had to settle for landing NAIA offensive player of the week honors.
Despite the overtime buzzkill, Mason's eruption was a positive twist for the Raiders (0-3) on several fronts.
One, it gives SOU's remaining Frontier Conference opponents yet another game-breaker to account for, no small task when you consider that quarterback Austin Dodge already has passed for 1,096 yards and 10 touchdowns. Two, it provides a shot in the arm for a rushing attack that averaged only 3.6 yards per carry through the first two weeks of the season.
That was before Mason was unleashed in full force — he was academically ineligible for the season-opener against Rocky Mountain and spent most of Week 2 chipping off the rust in a 19-carry, 60-yard performance against Montana Western.
Thanks mostly to Mason, the Raiders averaged 8.3 yards per rush against Sacramento State. That kind of production may have surprised most in attendance, but not SOU head coach Craig Howard, who saw film of Mason running circles around high school defenses at Vacaville and sent an assistant coach down Interstate 5 in what he figured was a futile effort to nab Mason.
"I thought he was at the Big Sky level or even a (Pac-12) player because in high school, he just did what he did Saturday," Howard said. "He just played with great passion and intensity. When I recruited him, that's what I expected with him. I thought he would be an All-American and he played like it Saturday against a Division I team."
As a senior at Vacaville, Mason rushed for 1,971 yards and 32 touchdowns while averaging 8.8 yards per carry. The Bulldogs ran the Wing-T offense, a conservative, run-first scheme that's about as far removed from SOU's no-huddle spread as one could imagine.
Humble and well-spoken, Mason says adjusting to SOU's NASCAR pace took some time, but the adjustment has been made.
"It's totally different, everything's so much faster," Mason said of playing for the Raiders. "I hear the play and see the signal, I have to remember fast because if you don't, you mess up and mess the whole play up. At first, it was a little shaky for me because I didn't really understand all the plays and know everything. But now that I know all the plays and know the key blocking assignments and where to look, where to go, I think that with our offense we're just going to keep rolling through everything and do what we do continually throughout the whole season."
Thanks to their 0-2 start in the Frontier Conference, the Raiders probably need to roll — in fact, they may need to run the table when their league schedule resumes Saturday in La Grande against Eastern Oregon (0-3, 0-2 Frontier). The good news is, the Raiders have had their way with the Mountaineers in recent years, winning the last five matchups and blitzing the only other Oregon-based Frontier Conference team by a combined score of 177-91 in the last three meetings.
Howard isn't shying away from calling Saturday's game a must-win for the Raiders.
"It's a season game," he said. "If we win the game, we still got a chance to run the table and make the playoffs, so it's a huge, huge game for us. It's having a good season or having a bad season kind of game. You lose this game, then you're going to play the rest of the string out but there's no more meaningful games — they're all just games."
Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-776-4469, or email firstname.lastname@example.org