Off to see the …
Topeka. Sunflower. Western meadowlark.
What are Kansas' state capital, state nickname and state bird?
That's how a game of Jeopardy could go, and Southern Oregon University's football players might be pretty good contestants.
“We're going on a tour of Kansas this month,” said coach Craig Howard.
Last Saturday, the ninth-ranked Raiders opened the NAIA Football Championship Series with a 52-8 win over No. 10 Kansas Wesleyan.
This week, SOU visits No. 2 Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., for the quarterfinals. Kickoff at Liston Stadium is at 10 a.m. PST.
Few of his players have been to Kansas, said Howard.
“Maybe we'll see Dorothy or the Wizard of Oz,” he chuckled.
Howard has reason to be lighthearted. The defending national champion Raiders (9-2) are following the master plan: They're healthy and playing their best ball as the playoffs unfold.
SOU finished the regular season with a crucial road win at Eastern Oregon, then thumped a Kansas Wesleyan team that ranked fourth in the nation in offense and had won its previous four contests by an average of four touchdowns.
“Everything we do from January through the offseason is geared to getting us ready for the playoffs,” said Howard. “We want to stay hungry, healthy and humble. If we do those things, it'll go a long way to helping us in the playoffs. What we say around here is, the longer we play, the better we get.”
The Raiders have not had any experience playing Baker.
“They're a new opponent for us,” said Howard. “They have one week to prepare for us, and we have one week to prepare for them. It's kind of fun to play teams you don't know. It'll be fun to test ourselves against a new team and see how we stack up.”
The Wildcats, who routed No. 17 Point (Ga.) last week, 68-21, have a history of success. They're in the playoffs for the 14th time, and with an 11-1 record, have matched the 2013 quarterfinalists for the program's most wins in a season.
Baker, which has beaten three top-25 teams this season, has made it to the semifinals four times, but the last time was in 1993. Its best finish was in '86, when it was runner-up.
“They've got a pretty rich tradition of football there,” said Howard. “They've been a pretty good program over decades, not just recently.”
SOU is in the quarterfinals for the third time in four years. It will again will face a potent offense. The Wildcats average 41.3 points per game, which is seventh best in the NAIA, and 292.3 yards passing per game, which is ninth.
The Raiders are no slouches, either, coming in at No. 4 in scoring (43.9) and No. 14 in passing (262.8).
“It might be a six-hour game,” said Howard.
Against Point, Baker sophomore quarterback Logan Brettell made his first start, replacing Nick Marra, and the Wildcats didn't skip a beat. Brettell tied the school record with six touchdown passes, completing 28 of 36 passes for 419 yards.
Marra missed the game with an undisclosed injury.
Howard is impressed with Brettell.
“He's done really well,” said the coach. “He prepared himself as the backup guy, got his chance and took advantage. He really looked good against Point.”
His favorite target was another sophomore, Clarence Clark, who had seven catches for 200 yards and four scores.
“They're a throwing team,” said Howard. “They've got some real weapons at receiver. Each week, different guys have stepped up. They're all single-digit numbers and they're all pretty fast.”
The Raiders need a strong push up front to get pressure on the quarterback, he said, and solid coverage in back.
Defensively, Baker has been stout, allowing 17 points per game, which is No. 7 in the country. SOU is 23rd at 22.8.
“We've got a solid offensive line,” said Howard. “That'll be the key this week, how we dominate the line of scrimmage and how we protect our quarterback. They swarm to the ball, pursue well and tackle. We need to not turn the ball over and put together drives that end in points.”
The Raiders counter with the No. 7-ranked team in total offense, averaging 501.9 yards per game to Baker's 448.8 (14th).
SOU's system of rotating quality backs into action has served it well. The Raiders are 13th in rushing at 239.1 yards per game, but their leading ball carriers are quarterback Tanner Trosin (66.3 yards per game) and Melvin Mason (64.5).
Against Kansas Wesleyan, Trosin was productive with his arm and legs, hitting 26 of 32 passes for 365 yards and three TDs and carrying nine times for 90 yards and a score.
Speedy Louis Macklin, who averages 7.8 yards per carry on the season, had 130 yards rushing on 12 carries and 62 yards on three receptions. He scored twice, on a run of 71 yards and a catch of 41 yards.
“Once he's in the open field, he's hard to catch,” said Howard. “He's one of the backs that's a little different. Louis would start on most NAIA teams in the country. He may be the fastest player on our team.”
The Raiders also expect to get shifty Sean Tow back this week. He's been practicing well after missing several games with a shoulder sprain. He would be in the mix for carries, along with Keegan Lawrence.
“We rotate the backs and keep them fresh,” said Howard, “and if somebody gets a hot hand, we ride them. It keeps them healthier that way. One guy doesn't have to take all those hits. It's a pretty good system, and we have a bunch of unselfish guys who say, 'Coach, what do we need to do to win?'”
The Raiders also welcomed back one of their top receivers in Matt Retzlaff last week.
SOU was to have an early practice today, then disperse to celebrate Thanksgiving. The Raiders leave for Kansas Friday morning intent on continuing their solid play.
“Hopefully, we are peaking,” said Howard. “We'll find out as we continue our march through the state of Kansas and the rest of the NAIA playoffs.”
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-76-4479, or firstname.lastname@example.org