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SOU eager to play first game in 22 months

Raiders open football season Saturday at Rocky Mountain College in Montana

ASHLAND — For 22 months, Southern Oregon University head football coach Charlie Hall and the Raiders have been waiting for a week like this one.

There has been, at long last, a game to prepare for again. It’s been a normal game week. Or, at least as normal as things can get when you’re still in the midst of a pandemic.

After plenty of patience exuded from players and coaches alike, Southern Oregon opens the 2021 season at 5 p.m. Pacific Saturday in Montana against Rocky Mountain College.

“It’s just an awesome feeling,” said SOU senior defensive tackle and Medford native Tre Holmes, the Raiders’ lone returning all-conference player. “It’s been, what, 21 or 22 months since we had an actual game, so it’s just a lot of emotions going through all of our heads right now. I know for me, I’m super excited to just finally get out here and get out on the field for (my) last season. I’m ready to go, I’m super excited and I’m sure the rest of our guys are pumped up and ready to go, too.”

There’s been plenty of turnover in the SOU program since the Raiders last took the field in November 2019.

Coaches have left and been replaced. A lot of players, young and old, have either left by choice or graduated and began their professional lives. All of it under the circumstances that the Raiders’ next game wasn’t going to happen until the end of August.

This Raiders team is young, and Hall is very much aware of that.

“It almost feels like I’m just taking over a brand new program almost,” Hall quipped. “It feels that foreign because we haven’t played a game in such a long time and a lot has happened in the offseason. We’re almost a completely different coaching staff, we have a lot of brand new players and not a lot of players who would be considered the veteran players that were part of this program in 2019. So, it is quite different.”

With so many unknowns, Hall said he is looking at the Raiders’ first couple of games this season as almost an extension of the preseason. With everything that SOU has had to deal with since camp started — local COVID-19 cases surging, smoke from wildfires outside of the area forcing them to practice indoors — it hasn’t been a normal preparation and evaluation process by any means.

But with players who were backups in 2019 now stepping into starting roles and new arrivals from either this year or last fighting for playing time, this preseason has definitely been a competitive one.

“I’m excited for everybody,” Holmes said. “For a good majority out here, it might be their first college snaps, so I’m just really excited for these guys and the opportunity they’re about to have on Saturday, and I really think we’re going to have a great day.”

“Those questions (about the team) will be answered at 9 o’clock on Saturday night, I suppose,” Hall said with a laugh.

Hall, who has taken over as SOU’s offensive coordinator this season, will have a new starting quarterback in Trent Banner, although the fourth-year junior is as familiar as anybody with the program.

Banner has taken a circuitous route to get to the starting gig after temporarily playing running back in 2018 and then making an emergency start at QB due to injuries in 2019. A former prep standout in Northern California, Banner has been as patient as one can be leading up to his first-ever season-opening start.

But he won’t be the only quarterback to play Saturday, according to Hall.

Crater alum Matt Struck, who transferred from Missouri State to finish his college career close to home, will also see action against Rocky Mountain.

“They will both see time this weekend, no doubt,” Hall said. “We’re going to go into the early part of the season with both quarterbacks having an opportunity to play and let this thing sort itself out. Camp-wise, Matt has pushed Trent to play better and compete, and that’s certainly helped our offense. Matt comes with a lot of talent and he’s picked up the offense quick because he’s a savvy guy and these concepts are nothing new to him. That’s a pretty strong position group right now.”

While SOU hasn’t played a competitive game in nearly two years, Rocky Mountain was one of the handful of Frontier Conference teams to actually get games in during the spring.

The Battlin’ Bears went 1-3 in the shortened season, with a 24-21 win over Montana State-Northern in the finale preventing a winless spring.

Like SOU, Rocky Mountain will be opening the season with a new starting quarterback after the graduation of Drew Korf, who had been the Bears’ starter since 2016. Stepping in for Korf is redshirt freshman Johnathan Morris, who saw limited action in the spring.

Rocky Mountain is also extremely young up front, with either freshmen or sophomores manning the starting offensive line spots.

“They’re an athletic team,” Hall said. “They run very well, they’re fast, so we’re very similar in the things that we do on both sides of the ball. There’s some similarities, there’s some differences, but I hope that there’s a great crossover when we play the game.”

The sample size of film to help the Raiders prepare for Saturday’s opposition is small but, as Hall pointed out, it’s not like Rocky Mountain currently has a lot to go off of when it comes to this version of SOU.

Saturday will be the first time that Hall has called plays on offense since he was at Ashland High. SOU’s new defensive coordinator, Jerome Souers, was last running a defensive unit back when he was at the University of Montana prior to his 21-year stint as Northern Arizona’s head coach.

“Schematically, we get to watch Rocky’s film (from the spring) and see their tendencies while they don’t really know where we’re at right now,” said Hall, whose team won the last meeting with RMC in 2019. “That’s a little bit in our favor from their game planning standpoint, but they have the experience and confidence in having played some games more recently than we have.”

What’s the key for the Raiders then?

“Staying to our craft and sticking to the details that we’ve been harping on these last couple of weeks (in preseason camp),” said Holmes. “If we really stay physical up front, I think we’re going to be all right. Rocky’s a good football team, for sure. It’s not going to be some cakewalk. I think it’s going to be a good game, but if we stay physical and stick to the details we’re going to be just fine out there.”

“What I really like about this team is that we’re hungry,” added Holmes. “Not playing for so long definitely helps with that, but we’re all super determined and we all have that mindset that we’re not going to let anything get in the way of our end goal. We’ve really been energetic all of the offseason and I’m super excited for what’s in store this weekend.”

After 22 months in between games, you can understand why.

Reach Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

Former Crater standout Matt Struck will be one of two quarterbacks to see playing time in Southern Oregon’s season opener against Rocky Mountain College. Andy Atkinson/Mail Tribune