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Tech victory

ASHLAND — Montana Tech defensive back Gunnar Kayser has been the target of some lighthearted ribbing from his Oredigger teammates because he’s excelled at getting in position to make interceptions only to drop most of those opportunities.

On Saturday, with the Frontier Conference title on the line, Kayser made a play that will likely shut up everybody for a while, and as an added bonus his game-clinching interception also gave Montana Tech a Frontier Conference championship.

Montana Tech took its first lead of the game on Sean Sullivan’s fingertip touchdown catch with 1 minute, 44 seconds to go and Kayser’s diving pick on the SOU sideline made it stand up as the ninth-ranked Orediggers knocked off the top-ranked Raiders 21-17 to clinch no worse than a tie for the Frontier Conference title and an automatic bid to the NAIA playoffs Saturday at Raider Stadium.

“We’ve been in playoff mode since the second game of the season,” Montana Tech coach Chuck Morrell said. “We lost to Eastern Oregon early in the season and knew that we were going to have to find a way to win nearly every game all the way out. So that’s kind of been our mantra and guys have done a great job of just keeping the focus right in front of them.”

Down 17-14 and facing a third-and-goal from the Raider 10, the Orediggers avoided a game-tying field goal attempt when fill-in quarterback Andrew Loudenback found Sullivan in the back of the end zone, capping a 65-yard drive.

The Raiders were in great position to retake the lead after Matt Retzlaff returned the ensuing kickoff 35 yards and Tanner Trosin threw two straight passes to Jeremy Scottow for another 37 yards, giving SOU a first down at the Oredigger 28. On the next play Trosin threw another square out to Scottow, but this time Kayser cut it off with a diving catch, extending fully while also keeping his feet inbounds.

With 1:36 on the clock, Southern Oregon, which had two timeouts left, still had a chance to get the ball back if it could force the Orediggers into a three-and-out, but on second-and-9 receiver Clay Cavender took a direct snap, faked a hand-off and streaked untouched around the left end 34 yards before taking a knee near midfield.

A kneel-down later the Orediggers (8-1) were celebrating their sixth straight win and are one more victory away from winning the Frontier Conference title outright a year after finishing 1-9.

“You just gotta take your hats off as a coach and a program to (Montana Tech),” SOU coach Craig Howard said. “They made the plays that they had to to win the game and we didn’t. Again, you always have your opportunities. When we look at the film they’ll be heartsick at some of the mistakes we made that we could have had.”

Southern Oregon (7-2), which saw its seven-game win streak snapped after sustaining just its third home loss in the Howard era, is still in position to earn an at-large bid to the NAIA’s 16-team playoff tournament heading into next week’s regular-season finale at Eastern Oregon.

“We play each game one at a time,” SOU senior defensive lineman Joseph Lealofi said. “We go one and zero every time we go up and we don’t ever look past an opponent, so when we go to Eastern we’ll focus on Eastern and we’ll go from there.”

Though the Orediggers made a few big plays on offense late, it was their defense — ranked 12th in the nation coming in — that saved the day. Montana Tech became the first team in four years to hold Southern Oregon to less than 20 points, and that was after the Raiders ripped off a 75-yard touchdown drive on the first possession of the game.

Trosin completed 14 of 27 passes for 209 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and also led the Raiders with 62 rushing yards. Scottow had five catches for 78 yards, and Melvin Mason rushed for 46 yards and a score.

Orediggers running back Nolan Saraceni and Cavender combined for 273 yards rushing, as Montana Tech gained 352 of its 434 total yards on the ground in an effort to keep the ball away from SOU’s potent offense.

Marcus Montano’s 35-yard field goal with 7:48 to go in the third gave SOU a 17-7 lead. Montana Tech came right back with a clutch 14-play, 79-yard drive that Loudenback capped with a 3-yard pass to Cavender. On the key play of the drive, Loudenback completed an 8-yard pass to Sean Sullivan on third-and-6 near midfield.

The Orediggers’ defense took over from there, as the Raiders’ final four drives ended with a punt, a missed field goal, another punt and the interception. In between SOU’s defense came up with its own big play when Jaylenn Hart stripped the ball away from Saraceni. Grant Torgerson recovered to give SOU a first down at the Tech 33, but the drive stalled at the 23 and Montano’s 40-yard field goal attempt was wide left.

After Southern Oregon forced the Orediggers to punt on their next possession SOU took over at its own 26 with 6:52 to go. Looking to keep the clock moving, the Raiders were instead forced to punt when Mason was stuffed for a 2-yard loss on third-and-1.

The Orediggers’ game-winning drive began at their own 35 with 5:30 to go. The key play was Cavender’s 39-yard run on second-and-7 from the Tech 38. That gave the Orediggers a first down at the Raider 23. On the touchdown pass, Loudenback dropped back and threw a pass that barely cleared the outstretched arms of a defender before being hauled in by Sullivan.

“That’s where the ball was going all along,” Morrell said. “It’s something that our offensive staff and our offensive coordinator, Pete Sterbick, had seen throughout the course of film study, that if we got into that situation down there they gave us the look that we wanted to see. (Loudenback) made a great throw and (Sullivan) made a great catch.”

Southern Oregon University junior quarterback Tanner Trosin fights his way through Montana Tech defenders at Raider Stadium on Saturday. PHOTO BY LARRY STAUTH JR.
Southern Oregon University junior Melvin Mason streches out for a touchdown against Montana Tech at Raider Stadium on Saturday. PHOTO BY LARRY STAUTH JR.