Defense, big third quarter propel SOU past No. 18 EOU
ASHLAND — With their ears pinned back and their eyes getting bigger with every sack recorded, the Southern Oregon defense made it be known early on that Saturday was going to be their day.
And the Raiders reminded their rivals from La Grande about it time and time again.
Behind arguably its best performance of the 2021 season, Southern Oregon limited No. 18-ranked Eastern Oregon — the preseason pick to win the Frontier Conference — to its lowest point total in nearly a decade in the Raiders’ 27-3 win at Raider Stadium.
The Raiders (3-2) limited the Mountaineers to just 284 yards of total offense, well under their season average, and swarmed the EOU offense from start to finish.
“Seeing the little accomplishments, it just kind of confirms what we’ve worked for,” said SOU defensive end Alejandro Sanchez, who finished with 10 tackles and three of his team’s six sacks. “That’s really what we eat up and feast on, so we just keep working. That’s really what it is, and that’s what this program is built on — work, dedication and buying in and having a culture of success.
“A lot of kids have seemed to buy in, and once we seem to buy in, it’s really a momentum thing. You see these guys so hungry and I kind of expect it, to be honest. I don’t expect any scores to be up there.”
In the last six quarters of play, SOU’s defense has allowed only 19 points, with 16 of those coming in the second half of last Saturday’s 34-33 comeback win over Carroll College.
This time around, the Raiders constantly frustrated all-Frontier quarterback Kai Quinn and limited him to 233 yards on 22-of-39 passing. Quinn was also EOU’s leading rusher with 23 yards.
“Their quarterback is an amazing quarterback and he can get loose,” Sanchez said. “If you watch his film from previous games, you can tell that if you give him some space and a little crease, then he’ll take it. So it was about taking that away and keeping him in the pocket and collapsing the pocket. We did that today.”
SOU defensive tackle Ika Ngauamo, like Sanchez, finished with three sacks.
The six sacks were a season high for SOU.
“It’s unbelievable seeing them get big sacks and it just makes me smile,” SOU receiver Shane McLaughlin said. “Everybody’s bought in and it’s a good team effort. Everyone’s doing a great job. ...The energy on the sidelines, it’s contagious, man. Everybody is playing well, they’re doing their thing and the energy and the fans, they’re just helping us make it a big part of our success.”
Saturday’s performance wasn’t the wild fourth-quarter comeback from seven days earlier that had head coach Charlie Hall and the rest of the coaching staff checking their pulse afterward, and that was fine for all parties.
The second straight win allowed SOU to find some much-needed momentum after coming home from a 29-3 loss at College of Idaho on Sept. 18.
The Raiders face another nationally ranked opponent next weekend when they travel to face No. 20 Montana Western, which lost 41-31 to Rocky Mountain (Mont.) on Saturday.
“Just confidence, just the ability to play,” Hall said about what’s different now compared to two weeks ago. “We just hadn’t had the chance to play enough through fall camp with the smoke and just getting together and identifying who our players are. Every game is like a practice because there’s so many things to evaluate with so many guys rotating through right now. We’ve got a pretty good feel of who we are.”
SOU had chances in the first half to get the lead as its defense kept the EOU offense quiet, but couldn’t cash in. The first coming on a missed field goal, then later in the first half the Raiders were unable to punch it in from inside the EOU 1-yard line on three consecutive plays.
“We were just disappointed we didn’t come away with points,” said Hall, whose team last beat a top-25 opponent in 2018. “We felt like we controlled the line of scrimmage, we moved the ball … we were doing what we wanted to do. I think we were disappointed, but not discouraged at halftime, and therefore they wanted to do something about it.”
The Raiders showed it in the third quarter.
After the teams exchanged punts to begin the second half, the Raiders broke the deadlock midway through the third quarter on running back Avery McCuaig’s 12-yard run that capped an 11-play, 75-yard drive.
It didn’t take SOU long to get the ball back, as linebacker Bryce Kasch tipped a Quinn pass and fellow linebacker Drew Schuler was able to get the interception. The Raiders doubled their lead two minutes later, taking a 14-0 advantage on Matt Struck’s 7-yard touchdown pass to receiver Christian Graney.
The SOU defense forced a quick three-and-out, and SOU got points out of its next drive on Cesar Ruiz’s 41-yard field goal with 3:13 to go in the third quarter.
EOU’s only points came seven seconds into the fourth quarter on Zachary Cahill’s 24-yard field goal. On the ensuing kickoff, SOU responded in a monster way, as McLaughlin raced down the EOU sideline for a 95-yard return to the house.
“That takes the wind out of your sails, man,” Hall said of the momentum swing from McLaughlin’s kick return. “It’s just a whole different mindset.”
Eastern Oregon (3-2), which has now lost two in a row, had two more chances inside the red zone to cut into the Southern Oregon lead. The results were more of the same — a turnover on downs and Quinn’s second interception of the day, this time to defensive back Seth Miller.
“Defense is about having confidence, having a personality,” Hall said. “There’s a rhythm going on right there with (defensive coordinator Jerome Souers) and there’s a culture. There’s a mindset about playing great defense and that nobody’s going to move the ball on us. And if we do give one up, then it’s no big deal and we’re going to go to the next play.”
Struck completed nine of his first 10 passes against Eastern Oregon and finished 19-of-33 for 208 yards and a touchdown. Receiver Bryce Goggin caught seven of those passes — including a pair of leaping highlight reel catches — for 112 yards, the third straight game that he’s eclipsed triple digits in as many weeks.
McCuaig finished with 54 yards on 15 carries.
“All of these guys, they’ve put in extra time to make the team better, and as a team we’re getting better,” McLaughlin said. “It’s showing in all phases — special teams, offense, defense.”
Reach reporter Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.