No. 25, No. 7 EOU set for showdown
ASHLAND — If a good measure of the state of the rivalry between No. 25 Southern Oregon and No. 7 Eastern Oregon is the amount of pain they've recently inflicted on each other and in what fashion, the relationship is as healthily contentious as ever.
Thursday's 73rd all-time meeting in a series that dates back to 1930 will be the season- and Frontier Conference-openers for both teams. It will also mark a changing of the guard as SOU's Charlie Hall, who took over for the late beloved coach Craig Howard, makes his collegiate head-coaching debut at Raider Stadium.
Hall inherited a group of Raiders hungry for payback after two crippling losses last season at the hands of the Mountaineers. The first, a 45-40 decision in La Grande that got SOU's 5-6 campaign off on the wrong foot, was especially hard to swallow given a couple last-second missed chances in the end zone that would've completed a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback. The second, a 39-29 decision in Ashland, kicked the Raiders out of first place and sent them into a tailspin as they dropped four of their final five games. It also helped propel EOU to its first-ever appearance in the NAIA Championship Series.
- The Raiders have maintained the upper hand for a majority of the series, leading 51-18-3. Their next-highest win total against an opponent is 26, against Western Oregon — the only team they've seen more than EOU, facing off most recently for the 74th time in 2010 — and Oregon Tech, a program that hasn't existed since 1992.
- SOU is 28-6-1 against the Mountaineers in Ashland, though three of those losses have occurred in the last four years.
- Five of the last seven matchups have been decided by five points or fewer, and none by more than 11. Since the start of the 2006 season, nine games have been decided by six points or fewer.
- The last time SOU opened its home schedule against EOU was on Sept. 12, 2015. EOU led 35-14 inside the final minute of the third quarter, but the Raiders rallied for a 38-35 win - a result that kept the Raiders from dropping to 0-2 as they went on to reach the NAIA title game.
The Frontier Files: SOU joined the Frontier's football circuit in 2012 and has since gone 36-14 in conference games, posting more wins than other team during that stretch. Carroll (Mont.) is next on the list with a 33-17 record during the same period, while Montana Tech is 30-20 and Eastern Oregon 29-21. Montana Tech, however, has won three of those Frontier titles — including the last two — and SOU is vying for its first since sharing one with the Orediggers in 2012. The Raiders are 11-8 against top-25 opponents in conference play, and 10 of the last 13 of those games have been decided by a touchdown or less.
NAIA Top 25: The Raiders were included in the preseason Top 25 for the fifth year in a row after being left out of the previous 10. Picked to tie for third in the Frontier with Carroll, they'll have two games to boost their résumé before the first poll of the regular season is released on Sept. 11. Last year they started at No. 2 and were dropped to No. 12 in the first regular-season poll after losses at EOU and UC Davis.
At No. 7, EOU owns the highest preseason ranking in team history thanks to a run to last year's national semifinals. Montana Tech is No. 6, and the Frontier's other ranked squad, No. 19 Montana Western, started its season Saturdaywith a 16-14 home win over College of Idaho. In total, the Top 25 went 8-4 during the opening week.
He's Baaaaack: A Southern Oregon offense that has produced more than 500 yards and 44 points per game over the last five years took a step back in 2016, but that still meant the 11th-most total yards in the NAIA. Senior quarterback Tanner Trosin missed the final nine games, but was granted a medical redshirt and is back to build on a 2015 campaign in which he completed 64 percent of his passes for 16 touchdowns and set SOU QB rushing records with 866 yards and 12 TDs. In three games against EOU, he's completed 77 of 101 attempts for 748 yards and rushed 35 times for 222 more. This year, he'll have four targets who each recorded a 100-plus-yard receiving game in 2016 — receivers Bronsen Ader (30 catches, 457 yards), Jason Shelley (34, 505) and Jordan Suell (20, 326), and tight endBen Bachman (23, 283).
The Aspiring Stoppers: Among SOU's eight returning defensive starters are four all-conference players — linebackers Isiah Carter (80 tackles in 2016) and Devvon Gage (100 tackles, 13 for losses in '16), safety Keegan Lawrence (68 tackles in his first year on 'D'), and lineman Sam Woods (97 tackles, 9 sacks the last two seasons). Inconsistency and penalties handicapped a Raider defense that allowed 31.8 points per game last year, but they finished the season in relatively strong fashion. In their final four games, they collected seven interceptions; in their first seven, they had two. And in their final six games, they recorded 25 sacks (including nine in one); in their first five, they had five.
Hall Marks: For the first time since he wrapped up his stint as an offensive coordinator at Northern Arizona University in 2004, Charlie Hall is back in higher education. After winning 94 games at Ashland High from 2005-16, he'll attempt to become the first SOU head coach to debut with a victory since Jeff Olson's team defeated Puget Sound, 35-26, on Sept. 21, 1996 — the season Hall served as the Raiders' offensive coordinator. SOU's previous 15 head coaches went a combined 4-10-1 in their first games.
Home History: All-time at Raider Stadium, SOU brings a 93-58 record into 2017 after going 25-5 during the Howard era. But of their last 12 regular-season night games in Ashland, the Raiders have only won two - though last year's Oct. 15 date with EOU was the first since 2009. In Frontier play, the Raiders are 20-5 at home.