Raiders brace for No. 16 Eastern Oregon
ASHLAND — Just like last time, only way better.
When the Eastern Oregon football team last visited Raider Stadium in the penultimate game of 2013, the Mountaineers were disrupting plans and breaking hearts like only a rival can.
Southern Oregon was ranked 25th and still clinging to hope of an at-large bid to the NAIA Championship Series when Jace Billingsley's 26-yard receiver pass gave EOU a 38-37 lead with two minutes left. That lead held as SOU fumbled away its last chance five yards away from the end zone. Thoughts of the postseason abruptly fizzled.
Billingsley and the Mountaineers (7-3 overall, 6-3 Frontier Conference) make their return for Saturday's 1 p.m. regular-season finale, and this time they're playing for more than just the thrill of inflicting heartbreak. At No. 16 in the rankings, the Mountaineers could be included in the 16-team NAIA playoffs for the first time in program history when first-round pairings are announced Sunday.
As for the fourth-ranked Raiders (9-1, 8-1), another win would give them more victories than any team in program history and at least a share of the Frontier Conference title for the second time in three years. It would also put them in line to possibly host two playoff games, starting with the first round on Nov. 22. If the Raiders were to lose, they'd likely let second-ranked Carroll (which hosts College of Idaho Saturday) take the title outright and might drop far enough in the rankings to get stuck on the road in the first round.
SOU hasn't hosted a playoff game since 2002.
"We've played a lot of great ones with Eastern Oregon over the years, but in our time here this is by far the most important," Raiders coach Craig Howard said. "We have a lot of respect for (EOU head coach) Tim Camp and the job he's done, and I'd love to see both teams in the playoffs."
GOLDEN YEARS: Saturday marks the 68th edition of this rivalry — SOU has faced only Western Oregon more (74 times) — and maybe the most meaningful. The Raiders lead the series 49-15-3 and had won six straight by an average margin of 24.5 points until last year's setback, which stands as the only home loss of the Howard era. SOU has won seven straight at home against ranked opponents.
The Raiders won the first meeting this year, 35-31, on Sept. 13 in La Grande. They didn't take the lead until Austin Dodge conducted a 16-play, 85-yard drive capped by Melvin Mason's touchdown dive with 2:11 left, and EOU went on to botch two potential game-winning TD catches on the final drive.
"That was a big early challenge but the players responded well and our coaches did a great job of making the right calls at the end of the game," Howard said.
RECORDS GET YOUNG-ER: Dylan Young broke Dan Johnson's 36-year-old SOU receiving-yardage record (2,360) last week by accumulating 182 yards for a grand total of 2,406. Two more TD catches gave him 28 for his two-year SOU career, tying Martin Turner's 31-year-old record, and 17 in 2014, which is one short of matching Cole McKenzie's 2012 single-season SOU record. He leads the NAIA in TD catches and receiving yards per game (128.3).
Ryan Retzlaff, of South Medford, registered two TD receptions at Montana Tech, giving him seven in the last four weeks. With 72 more receiving yards for Retzlaff, SOU would have two 1,000-yard receivers for the third straight season. Prior to 2012, Spike Gordon (1965) was the only Raider to hit that number.
QUICK HITS: With three consecutive four-TD games, Austin Dodge still leads the NAIA in every major passing category, and with 28 more completions he'll have 1,150 for his career and another NAIA record ... Dodge has thrown three TD passes and six interceptions in his last two meetings with EOU, and 35 TDs and three picks against 10 other opponents since the 2013 loss ... Heston Altenbach's 279 tackles rank fifth in SOU history, and he's nine away from supplanting J.D. Callicoatt (1999) at No. 4 on the list.
ABOUT EASTERN: Winners of three straight, the Mounties have recently gone all in on Billingsley, an All-American receiver suddenly turned primary ball-carrier. He rushed no more than three times in EOU's first six games, but last week rushed 20 times for 140 yards, the week before 35 times for 213 yards, and in two weeks before that 14 times for 176 yards.
"He's going to play everywhere," Howard said of Billingsley, "and we'll be playing 'Where's Waldo?' all day. He's certainly one of the best players in the country and he's been very hard on us."