Here we go again
Jaylenn Hart can’t help but smile when he thinks back on what happened roughly a year ago in Daytona Beach, Fla. And who could blame him?
The Southern Oregon football team was playing Marian for the NAIA championship in a game that had a new-school versus old-school vibe going in. Then the game began, and all the pregame hype and micro-analysis became meaningless footnote fodder as the Raiders took advantage of eight takeaways, including three interceptions by Hart, to win a 55-31 laugher.
“Yeah,” Hart said, “I did all right.”
Now, Hart and the seventh-ranked Raiders (11-2) are preparing for another NAIA FCS championship showdown with the sixth-ranked Knights (11-2), and many of the same matchups that made last year’s game intriguing — before Marian’s surprise implosion, that is — are back for Saturday’s sequel at Municipal Stadium in Daytona Beach.
The Raiders once again feature a high-flying, up-tempo offense led by a dynamic quarterback, but unlike last year, that quarterback, junior transfer Tanner Trosin, can demoralize opponents with both his legs and his arm.
The Knights, meanwhile, still roll out one of the top defensive units in the country, which was made even more formidable this season with the addition of former Purdue linebacker Dewayne Beckford.
When SOU has the ball
The Raiders aren’t putting up the same kind of numbers this season that they did with former quarterback and 2014 NAIA player of the year Austin Dodge last season, but they’ve been more balanced and just as clutch, and Trosin’s surprise emergence as the starter early in the season is a big reason why.
The wiry 6-foot, 180-pound signal caller out of Folsom, Calif., essentially won the job by leading SOU back from a 35-14 deficit against Eastern Oregon back in September, and he’s proven to be just as reliable under pressure in consecutive playoff victories on the road over No. 2 Baker and No. 1 Morningside.
He’s completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,709 yards and 15 touchdowns and has run for 855 yards and 12 more scores, making him SOU’s leading rusher.
“Tanner Trosin is a different kind of quarterback, so I’m sure glad that he chose to become a Raider,” SOU head coach Craig Howard said. “Again, he’s such a competitor. On some of those runs it’s not the blocking, he’s just competing. He does not want to lose.”
Trosin leads an offense that ranks sixth in the country in points per game (41.3) and yards per game (500) and is the most balanced unit the Raiders have had since Howard brought his no-huddle spread offense to Ashland in 2011.
The Raiders average 273 yards per game through the air and 228 on the ground, with five players, led by Trosin and Melvin Mason (794 yards, 11 TDs), rushing for 246 yards or more.
The receivers also share the wealth, with Teran Togia, Matt Retzlaff, Jeremy Scottow and Adonis Griffin each netting between 498 (Togia) and 686 (Retzlaff) receiving yards.
The Raiders’ offensive versatility will be tested like never before against the imposing Knights, who rank second in the country in points allowed (14.4 per game), third in yards against (267.2 yards per game), first in rushing defense (76.3 yards per game) and second in sacks (47).
Beckford, the nation’s sack leader (13), personifies a Marian defense that Howard says is solid across the board and aggressive to the extreme. Senior linebacker Ryan Hartnett leads the Knights with 114 tackles and 11 sacks, junior defensive back Eric Price has four of the Knights’ 13 interceptions and junior linebacker Shaquille Ash has 86 tackles, 8.5 sacks and six tackles for a loss.
“They’ve run more blitzes than any team we’ve played all year,” Howard said. “On our blitz board we might have like 10 blitzes up one week for an opponent. We’ve got like 50 blitzes that they run, and they run different blitzes each week.”
Most of the Raiders have firsthand experience dealing with Marian’s attack-oriented defensive scheme, but that doesn’t mean they’ll attack it the same way they did last year, SOU offensive coordinator Ken Fasnacht said. Indeed, the rematch may bear little resemblance to last year’s game because, while SOU’s offense and Marian’s defense both have plenty of returners, the switch from Dodge to Trosin has dramatic implications.
“Other than the one player (Beckford), it really is the same defense we played last year in the championship game,” Fasnacht said. “The difference last year was we threw the ball over their head. We did only rush for 66 yards against them last year. All of the offense that we had was through the air, and we think we have some things that’ll be different this year, but again, we’re going to have to take advantage of the back end of their defense and they’re all good football players. ...
“But we’ve got good football players, too. We feel good about our quarterback position, our wide receiver-on-DB matchups, and we feel real good about our offensive line matched up on their front.”
“It’s on their defense to decide what are they going to take away — are they going to take away the run or the pass, and it’s kind of hard to choose one or the other,” he said. “Teams try to choose both, but sometimes it just doesn’t end up working in their favor.”
When Marian has the ball
Marian senior quarterback Hayden Northern is one of a number of Knights who played in last year’s championship game, although Northern would probably wipe that day off his resume if he could. It was a disaster from start to finish for the Martinsville, Ind., product, who threw six interceptions, including one by Julius Rucker that was returned 54 yards for a touchdown on the Knights’ fourth play from scrimmage.
Northern, a classic pocket passer, has done his best to put that nightmare behind him. He’s completed 63 percent of his passes for 3,380 yards, the fifth-best mark in the nation, and 27 touchdowns. He’s also been picked off 12 times.
Like its defense, the Knights’ offense is, in terms of numbers, one of the best in the country, ranking fourth in points per game (42.5), fourth in third-down conversions (49 percent), sixth in pass efficiency and eighth in yards per game (491.3).
Northern may be the brain of the operation, but the engine is receiver Krishawn Hogan, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound receiver who’s one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NAIA. Hogan has 90 catches for an NAIA best 1,677 yards and 15 touchdowns. He’s coming off a game in which he accounted for 204 yards of total offense and six touchdowns.
Marian’s second-leading receiver is junior Jimmie Walker Jr., who has 41 catches for 535 yards and four touchdowns. Marian also has two top-flight running backs — Robert Gibson (1,053 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Jakhari Gore (787 yards, 13 touchdowns).
Hart feasted on Northern’s mistakes last year, but he likes the way Northern plays.
“I feel like he’s very good,” Hart said. “He’s confident with his throws. He believes in his receivers, his receivers are very good and I can’t wait for the challenge.”
Hogan’s already heavy workload has only increased in the playoffs. He had 13 touches for 157 yards and four touchdowns in Marian’s 44-7 first-round win over Campbellsville, 16 touches for 187 yards and four TDs in Marian’s 30-3 quarterfinal victory over Grand View and 23 touches in Marian’s 45-14 semifinal win over previously unbeaten Saint Francis.
Howard said the Raiders will probably double-cover Hogan, who had six catches for 132 yards in last year’s championship game. SOU senior cornerback Karrington Jones (6-foot-2, 185 pounds), who ranks second in the nation with seven interceptions, has the size to match up with Hogan, but Rucker and Hart will probably also help out.
“(Hogan’s) very physical and, from the film, he’s definitely going to be a factor on their team and a playmaker that they like to go to,” Hart said.
Rucker is the leading tackler on a Raider defense that’s surrendering 22.8 points and 376 yards per game. Senior defensive lineman Joseph Lealofi has 73 tackles, a team-high 13.5 tackles for a loss and seven sacks, and sophomore lineman Sam Woods leads the team with 7.5 sacks.
The Raiders rank third in the country with 41 sacks.
Southern Oregon lost placekicker Aldrick Rosas to a knee injury late in last year’s championship game, but freshman Marcus Montano has stepped up and is one of several reasons why the Raiders figure to have an edge should Saturday’s game come down to special teams.
Rosas has hit 12 of 18 field goal attempts this season, including an impressive 6 of 7 in the 30- to 40-yard range.
Southern Oregon senior punter Thomas Giddens leads the nation with a 43.3 yards per punt average, and the Raiders also have the nation’s fourth-leading punt returner in Retzlaff (16.4 yards per return, one touchdown) and rank fourth in the country as a team in average kickoff return (23 yards per).
“Obviously, the strength of our football team is in our skill positions in general, and the depth in our skill positions, and that bleeds over into our special teams,” Fasnacht said.
For Marian, Matt Plesac ranks seventh nationally in field-goal accuracy (13-for-14), although his longest attempt is 34 yards.
Howard was hired to rebuild Southern Oregon in 2011 and needed only three and a half years to lead the program to its first national title. Now, after guiding SOU to the playoffs for the third time in five years, the Grants Pass native is one win away from capping a rare back-to-back championship run, something that hasn’t happened since Sioux Falls won it in 2008 and ‘09.
Howard was named the Rawlings NAIA coach of the year last year, but he may be more deserving should the Raiders pull off a repeat Saturday. Why? The Raiders this season were forced to replace the most prolific quarterback in NAIA history, and did so with a player whose skills are vastly different from Dodge’s.
Also, SOU earned its way back to the big show the hard way, beating the two highest ranked teams in the nation on the road.
Marian coach Mark Henninger, who was named the 2014 American Football Coaches’ Association NAIA coach of the year, has also done a masterful job in getting the Knights back to Daytona after a rocky 3-2 start. Since then, the Knights have outscored opponents 341-77 and won eight in a row.
Henninger will also be trying to capture what would be his program’s second national title — Marian won its first and only championship in 2012 over Morningside.
“Getting here is special, but we don’t just want to get here,” Howard said. “I used that theme last year in Daytona. You don’t just want to go, you want to go and win. There’s a whole lot of difference between what Marian felt last year and what we felt last year after the game. One team was champions and the other team was crying.
“You want to be the champion, and if we can do it two years in a row, back to back, it would kind of prove that we’re not just some one-year wonder. It would prove that we’re a legit national power at the NAIA level.”
Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org