ASHLAND — Their playoff hope scuttled weeks ago, the Southern Oregon Raiders could only turn to homecoming pride and revenge as their chief motivations against the No. 6 Montana Tech and dynamic quarterback Quinn McQueary.
The Orediggers, meanwhile, had a lot more on the line Saturday, and played like it.
McQueary threw for 333 yards, including the go-ahead touchdown pass midway through the third quarter, and ran for 65 more and Montana Tech’s defense blanked Southern Oregon over the last 25 minutes as the Orediggers beat the Raiders 38-27 to clinch the Frontier Conference title outright and spoil SOU’s homecoming for the second year in a row at Raider Stadium.
Montana Tech, which extended its winning streak to nine games, had already clinched no worse than a tie with No. 9 Eastern Oregon for the league title but was aiming to avoid sharing the title and improve its chances of hosting one or more playoff games.
The Diggers did both Saturday, while also nixing SOU’s bid for its fifth straight winning season, a feat which still has only been accomplished twice in team history. Instead, the Raiders end their season 5-6 overall and 5-5 in the Frontier Conference, which will likely only send its top two teams to the 16-team NAIA Football Championship Series.
“It was next man up, but we did fight through a lot of injuries,” SOU offensive coordinator Ken Fasnacht said. “We never had the same continuity on either side of the ball, but we still had the opportunity to win a lot of football games if we’d just executed at the time it mattered.”
Down 17-6 late in the first half, the Raiders did their best to turn the game into a shootout, scoring three touchdowns in a six-minute span from the end of the second quarter to early in the third. But the Diggers (9-1), who haven’t lost since dropping their season opener at Carroll, answered each challenge.
Southern Oregon quarterback Jack Singler, one of 18 SOU seniors suiting up for the last time, lofted a 53-yard touchdown bomb to Jason Shelley which gave the Raiders, following the point-after kick, a 27-24 lead with 10:03 to go in the third.
The Diggers proved their mettle on their next possession. Facing a third-and-25 from their own 38, McQueary hit Dion Williams with a 37-yard pass near the sideline for a lightning-strike conversion. Three plays later McQueary, who completed 21 of 31 passes, fired an 8-yard pass to Chris Kelly on third-and-8 to move the chains again, then threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Williams on the next play to give the Diggers the lead for good.
“I have great respect for Montana Tech,” SOU receiver Matt Retzlaff said. “They always play physical, they always play fast. I wish the best for them. I’d always love a team from the Frontier Conference to make it all the way.”
Williams had eight catches for 133 yards and a touchdown for Montana Tech, which converted 7 of 16 third downs, 3 of 4 fourth downs and dominated the time of possession, 37:28 to 22:32.
The Raiders’ next drive went backwards and, following a punt, Montana Tech marched 61 yards in five plays, extending its lead to 38-27 on Nolan Saraceni’s 4-yard touchdown run. Saraceni rushed for 99 yards and two touchdowns.
The Raiders crossed midfield only once the rest of the way — following a 20-yard punt by Montana Tech’s Slaten Long — and the Orediggers sucked the life out of what had been an energetic homecoming crowd (the announced attendance was 2,820) by orchestrating a 15-play, 89-yard drive that finally stalled at the SOU 1, but only after eating 8:08 off the clock. The Orediggers converted three third downs along the way, including one at their own 17. By the time the Raiders took over, only 4:49 remained. Four plays later Singler was knocked to the ground and had to leave the game, and his replacement, redshirt sophomore Holden Oglesbee, was picked off by Gunnar Kayser on the next play.
Singler, who took over for injured starter Tanner Trosin back in Week 3, completed 26 of 49 passes for 242 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.
The game was a bittersweet farewell for a handful of Raiders who helped SOU win the national championship in 2015 and get back to Daytona, Florida again last season, including Retzlaff, free safety Julius Rucker and running back Sean Tow.
“It’s surreal for it to be my last game and it’s kind of sad that it came to an end like this,” said Rucker, who ranks fifth on SOU’s all-time tackle list. “The younger guys will have to step up and contribute next year. But my emotions are just — I don’t know where they’re at. But I’ve had a heck of a time here and wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Retzlaff, who entered the game as SOU’s career leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, had 10 catches for 98 yards, including a signature 36-yard catch-and-run touchdown with 25 seconds to go in the first half. Rucker had eight tackles and Tow rushed for 21 yards.
Retzlaff’s receiving touchdown was the 40th of his SOU career, a Raiders’ record, and by surpassing 40 yards receiving on the day he became the eighth Raider to hit the 1,000-yard receiving mark in a season.
“I love every single one of my teammates, love every single one of my coaches,” Retzlaff said. “I thank everyone who supported me, our team, either through donations, love, support, cheering in the stands on a Saturday afternoon. There’s nothing at all to hang our heads about.
“We brought this program (back) …our expectation is to win the conference and win national championships now, and that’s pretty high. I have no doubt in my mind that our team will come back next year with a vengeance.”
Rucker said he’ll always remember his time in Ashland.
“It didn’t go our way this season,” he said, “but I’ve had my fun here and I’m excited to move on.”