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No. 1 SOU, No. 13 EOU on tap

ASHLAND — The rankings, rivalry and recent history were enough to pinpoint No. 13 Eastern Oregon at No. 1 Southern Oregon as a marquee matchup before the 2015 football season started.

Now, with a couple weeks in the books, one more ingredient has been added to spice up Saturday's 1 p.m. Frontier Conference tilt at Raider Stadium: a dash of early-season urgency.

Playing with the NAIA's top billing for the first time in program history, the Raiders came up short in their opener at fourth-ranked Carroll College, where 60 of the Saints' past 63 guests have done the same. Meanwhile, the Mountaineers were upset in their Aug. 29 opener at College of Idaho, 40-28, and fell behind by 38 points last Saturday at NCAA FCS opponent Sacramento State before departing with a 41-20 loss.

The Mountaineers stand as the only team to defeat the Raiders in Ashland since Craig Howard took over as head coach at SOU in 2011. They've done it the last two years, and last Nov. 15 they left Raider Stadium with a 31-27 win in the regular-season finale, believing justifiably that they had secured their first-ever spot in the 16-team NAIA Championship Series after upping their record to 8-3 an presumably strengthening a No. 16 ranking. But the net result was a one-spot hike in the NAIA Top 25, which only made them the first team left out of the postseason.

Lose again and the Mountaineers will be left with, at best, no margin for error for the remainder of the season in their efforts to avenge last year's snub. The Raiders, on the other hand, need a win to avoid a big drop when the first NAIA rankings of the regular season are released next Tuesday.

"I say every season, the biggest improvement is from the first to the second game," Howard said. "It's going to be a fun one and should be a great crowd. It took us four years to become No. 1 and the first game of the year we give up that spot, and now we turn around and play the only team that's beat us here. We should have a very motivated team, and more than anything I just expect better football."

Series quick hits:

- Saturday marks the 69th meeting between SOU and EOU. SOU leads the series, 49-16-3, and has a 27-6-1 advantage at home. The teams have split two games in two straight seasons.

- The Raiders have faced EOU more than any team except Western Oregon, which SOU played most recently for the 76th time in 2010.

- The last three meetings have all been decided by four points or less. SOU had won six straight prior to that stretch, including the previous three by an average of 42.3 points.

- Since 1980, the Mountaineers have won consecutively against the Raiders just once — from 2004 to '06, when they took three straight by an average of five points.

- EOU began competing in the Frontier Conference in 2006, and SOU in 2012. The Mountaineers have posted a Frontier record over .500 four times and the Raiders have done it three times.

The thing about record-setting predecessors: No one expected that replacing the 2014 NAIA player of the year at quarterback would result in a seamless transition, so no one was proven wrong by the 20-point output at Carroll — SOU's lowest since Oct. 15, 2011, a 52-12 loss at Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas). The Raiders scored only one offensive touchdown and went 11 of 14 drives without scoring at all. Thomas Giddens, SOU's All-Frontier Conference but little-known punter, was used seven times; it took the Raiders four games to get to seven punts last season.

The numbers go on — another relevant one, example, is that the only other time SOU had scored less than 30 points in its previous 38 games was the loss to EOU last season — but most of them are unfair. Consider that Carroll allowed nine points per game in 2014 against every team but SOU (which scored 41 per); and that Kamerun Smith (who went 14-for-36 with 183 yards and two interceptions) was starting his first game at quarterback since high school in 2012; and that those numbers would look better if not for two drops that could've resulted in game-winning TDs on the final drive.

Austin Dodge, the aforementioned player of the year, was actually responsible for the Raiders' last comparable passing performance: Making his second career start in 2011 against Webber International, at Raider Stadium, he went 17-for-36 with 188 yards and a pick. Webber International, which is not Carroll, was in the midst of an 0-5 start at the time.

First impressions: Several players wearing SOU uniforms for the first time turned in stellar performances at Carroll, including …

- Freshman kicker Marcus Montano, who hit field-goal attempts of 38 and 41 yards without a miss.

- Junior transfer Zack Davis, who led the Raiders in receiving with seven catches for 85 yards.

- Freshman linebacker Tyson Cooper, whose eight tackles (all solo) were the third-most on the team.

- Junior center Jose Sanchez, who was praised after his first start for several pancake blocks.

We Hart takeaways: The SOU secondary picked up where it left off in the 2014 NAIA title game with three interceptions of Carroll QB Mac Roche, who was picked off just four times all of last year. Jaylenn Hart — who collected three of SOU's six picks in the championship — made the first one Saturday, followed by Karrington Jones and Mylz Blake. The Raiders had three or more interceptions on just three occasions over 2013 and '14 seasons combined.

The Raiders were also tough on the run, making Carroll rush 36 times to reach 119 yards. They stopped the Saints on six of their last seven drives, allowing one score in the second half.

Retzlaff's special delivery: Matt Retzlaff was named the Frontier Conference special teams player of the week for his 95-yard TD return at Carroll, which went down as the sixth-longest in Raider history. SOU only had one TD return in 2014 (JJ Latu's 85-yarder vs. MidAmerica Nazarene) and didn't have one in '13. Retzlaff, who also made four catches for 53 yards, now owns 26 career TDs — 21 receiving, four rushing and one via return.

Home history: Howard, the 2014 Rawlings NAIA Coach of the Year, has led the Raiders to a 16-2 home record since taking over prior to the 2011 season. They've won seven of their last eight at home against ranked opponents.