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Eastern spoils SOU’s conference title hopes

ASHLAND — Other teams around the Frontier Conference may be wondering what Eastern Oregon’s secret is to winning on Southern Oregon’s home field, but the 16th-ranked Mountaineers were not all that discrete about it Saturday in a 31-27 upset of the No. 4 Raiders.

Jace Billingsley, Jace Billingsley, and more Jace Billingsley.

Billingsley, who has made a seamless transition from All-American receiver to running back in recent weeks, subdued a packed-in Raider Stadium grandstand all day with 247 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 45 bullish carries.

“I thought (EOU coach) Tim Camp and his staff had a great game plan and Jace Billingsley was like Superman out there today,” said SOU head coach Craig Howard. “Jace Billingsley is one of the better players in the NAIA and they just did a fantastic job moving him around. We didn’t tackle him well and he broke tackles and they were able to control the football. In the last five minutes we couldn’t get it back to get a chance to take shot to win the game.”

Billingsley and quarterback Zach Bartlow — who rushed 13 times for 83 yards and a TD and completed 10 of 13 passes for 129 yards and a TD — succeeded in keeping SOU’s high-powered offense off the field as EOU maintained a 16-minute advantage in time of possession.

The Mountaineers (8-3 overall, 7-3 Frontier) very likely earned a spot in the 16-team NAIA Championship Series for the first time in school history in the process. The pairings for the Nov. 22 first round will be revealed at 3 p.m. Pacific today with a selection show on NAIANetwork.com.

The loss was not without consequence for the Raiders (9-2, 8-2). They missed out on their second conference co-title in the last three years, giving it to second-ranked Carroll outright with the Saints’ 69-12 victory over College of Idaho.

Depending on what happens with the NAIA rankings, they may also have lost a chance at receiving first-round hosting rights for the first time since 2002. A win would have kept them in the top four and may have put them in line to stay at home for a couple rounds.

SOU’s first loss of the season, 42-40 at Carroll, resulted in a fall from fourth to seventh in the rankings. Back in 1999, the Raiders lost their regular-season finale at Western Oregon and dropped from fifth to 18th in the final poll, keeping them out of the postseason.

“You never know what will happen,” said Howard of SOU’s playoff status. “When you don’t win you lose control over your destiny. We’ll find out tomorrow and keep our fingers crossed. We wish we’d have played better today but I’m still proud of our football team.”

“It’s a heartbreaking loss for us but we’re still 9-2 and still should be in the playoffs,” he added. “So now a new season begins and we’ve just got to get back at it.”

The Raiders hadn’t scored fewer than 30 points since the final game of the 2011 season, a stretch spanning 33 games. Their only other home loss in Howard’s four years as head coach was their final home game of the 2013 season, when Billingsley’s 26-yard receiver pass with 1:53 left led to a 38-37 Mountaineer win.

Austin Dodge went 24-for-38 with 307 yards and three TD passes, but EOU was still relatively successful in jamming up the SOU receiving corps. Medford’s Ryan Retzlaff totaled 77 yards receiving and Dylan Young had 76, and neither had been under 100 in the same game for the previous seven weeks.

Dodge got the Raiders off to a promising start with a 10-play drive that ended with his 1-yard TD rush. His 27-yard TD pass to Retzlaff made it 13-0 on their next possession. EOU scored three TDs in the second quarter, however, starting with an eight-minute march that Bartlow capped with a short dive.

Dodge’s screen pass to the corner of the end zone hit Medford’s Matt Retzlaff for a 24-yard TD at the beginning of the second quarter, giving SOU a 20-7 lead. Bartlow’s 31-yard TD pass to Hernandez and Billingsley’s 16-yard run after Dodge was intercepted by Ryan Watson then made it 21-20, Eastern, by halftime.

It was 24-20 after Marc David’s 23-yard field goal, but a Dodge completion to Medford’s Jeremy Scottow that Scottow muscled in 11 yards to the end zone on a screen put SOU back up, 27-24, midway through the third. Eastern had another answer on the ensuing 81-yard drive, and Billingsley ran it home from 7 yards out.

SOU only possessed the ball for 2:21 in the fourth quarter. The Mountaineers didn’t score but got the ball with 8:20 left and didn’t let it go until they lost it on downs with 12 seconds on the clock. The Raiders couldn’t do anything with it when they finally got the ball on their own 6-yard line.

With four total touchdowns, Dodge broke the NAIA career touchdowns-responsible-for record. He’s up to 144.

A trio of seniors led the Raider defense — Laurence Calcagno with 14 tackles, Heston Altenbach with 13, and Daniel Breaux with 10.

The Raiders defeated Eastern in La Grande on Sept. 13, 35-31, not taking the lead until there was 2:11 remaining. The Mountaineers had 111 rushing yards on 29 tries in that one, and 337 on 60 tries this time around.