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No. 1 SOU, No. 4 Carroll face off in key opener

ASHLAND — For the first time in Southern Oregon University football history, the Raiders will play Saturday afternoon attached to the No. 1 ranking in the NAIA, and in many eyes they won't even be favored to win the game.

Which is to say, the 2015 season opener will be pretty much par for the course when it comes to the weird-and-getting-weirder rivalry between SOU and the fourth-ranked Carroll College Saints.

Kickoff is scheduled for 12:05 p.m. PDT in Helena, Mont., at Nelson Stadium, where the teams last met on Nov. 29 in sub-zero temperatures amid a blizzard that hid the landscape in the NAIA Championship Series quarterfinals.

It was the rubber match of the season series, SOU's chance to mend a couple of postseason heartbreaks suffered more than a decade earlier, and, in retrospect, the two best teams in the country playing for a trophy voucher to be redeemed later.

SOU scored on all five of its second-half drives (traveling 80, 80, 80, 70 and 64 yards), outscored the top-ranked Saints 27-7 in the fourth quarter, celebrated a 45-42 triumph and romped through the next two rounds to a 13-2 final record and the program's first NAIA championship.

Going into the quarterfinal matchup, the Saints had been 59-2 at home over the last eight seasons, including a 25-2 mark in the postseason.

Carroll has won six NAIA titles of its own since 2002 (the last in 2010), and is equipped to contend for another under 17th-year head coach Mike Van Deist with six starters back on both sides of the ball. The Saints went 10-2 overall and 9-1 in the Frontier in 2014, edging out SOU by a game to win their 14th conference title in the last 15 seasons. And despite trailing the Raiders in the national poll, Carroll got five of eight first-place votes to top this year's Frontier coaches' poll.

Unsurprisingly, Saturday's matchup was a landslide winner in fan voting for the NAIA Game of the Week. So was last year's Frontier Conference opener, which these teams played at Ashland High School and the Raiders came back to win, 38-35. The NAIA took voting out of the fans' hands for the second matchup, which Carroll won in Helena, 42-40.

This is the fourth time SOU will participate in a game of the week in the last four seasons, hooking up with Carroll for all but one of them. The exception was the 2012 regular-season finale against Montana Tech, which SOU won for a share of the Frontier title.

SERIES QUICK HITS:

— Carroll's defense allowed 9.6 points and 230.9 total yards against nine opponents not named SOU in 2014. Against the Raiders, the Saints yielded 41 points and 571.7 yards per contest.

— Carroll still holds a 4-3 edge in the all-time series against the Raiders, its first two victories occurring in the 2001 and '02 NAIA quarterfinals.

— Of the seven games the series has produced, only one was decided by more than four points: Carroll's 48-30 win in Helena on Nov. 2, 2013.

— Carroll's Mac Roche, regarded as possibly the top quarterback in the NAIA with Austin Dodge now out of the picture, went the first five games and then the last four of the 2014 season without being intercepted. SOU's Laurence Calcagno had one of those interceptions, and the Raiders also totaled six of the 17 sacks Carroll allowed.

— SOU's 38-35 win over Carroll in the Frontier opener last season was highlighted by SOU running back Melvin Mason's 202 rushing yards and three TDs on 27 carries. The Raiders rushed 48 times for 280 yards as a team, their highest output on the ground since the 2012 season.

MELVIN'S MASONRY: In a dramatic change of pace, the Raiders won't be celebrating any new quarterbacking records anytime soon. In fact, the coaching staff has yet to announce if Kamerun Smith (SOU's backup in 2014) or Tanner Trosin (a transfer from American River College) will be getting the start at QB on Saturday. But junior Melvin Mason — whose four rushing TDs helped the Raiders bury the Saints in the quarterfinals — will soon join some elite company at running back.

With his next rushing TD, Mason will have 24 for his career and move into third place on the SOU's career list behind only Raider hall-of-famers Dusty McGrorty and Griff Yates. Granted, McGrorty holds the NAIA record with 75 rushing TDs, and Yates rushed for 57. Mason will also soon join them in the 2,000-rushing-yard club, needing just 131 more yards to reach that milestone.

Matt Retzlaff, SOU's top returning receiver, enters the season with 115 receptions over the last two years, needing 45 to crack the top-five on SOU's career list. His brother, Ryan Retzlaff, set the single-season (105) and career (190) records last year.

SCOUTING THE SAINTS: Leading an offense than no longer has the services of All-American running back Dustin Rinker is Roche, who completed 67.4 percent of his passes for 245.2 yards per game, 28 TDs and four interceptions a season ago. He lost the services of his two top targets — Anthony Clarke to graduation and Kyle Griffith to an injury — and is left with Dylan Simac, who made 36 catches for 343 yards a season ago, and two freshmen out wide listed on the depth chart. Dylan Greene, a junior who made 27 carries in 2014, takes over in the backfield, and three seniors lead the offensive line.

The Saints brought four starters back in the defensive secondary, including All-American James Dowgin (3 interceptions, 69 tackles) and All-Frontier corners Matt Wymore and Ryan Gregory. All-Frontier linebacker Shayne Durbin (65 tackles) leads an experienced linebacker corps that lost former NAIA Player of the Year Sean Blomquist, but the Saints were tasked with replacing their entire defensive line after the 2014 season.