Raiders look to begin playoff run against upstart Kansas Wesleyan
Thirteen years after its last postseason appearance, the NAIA welcomed Kansas Wesleyan back to the Championship Series on Sunday when the 16-team field was announced.
The 10th-ranked Coyotes' reward for the best season in program history — an improbable 10-1 run that was preceded by a 2-9 showing in 2014 — is a 1,700-mile trip from Salina, Kan., for a date with the defending national champions.
Seventh-ranked Southern Oregon University returns to Raider Stadium for Saturday's 4 p.m. first-round affair, attempting to take the a step toward the first championship repeat since Sioux Falls (S.D.) defended its crown in 2009. The Raiders, who spent four weeks this season playing with the NAIA's No. 1 ranking, ended their 8-2 Frontier Conference slate on a high note last week with a 48-37 win at Eastern Oregon that secured their spot in the playoffs.
The three previous national champions are also in: Grand View (Iowa) (2013), Marian (Ind.) (2013) and Saint Xavier (Ill.) (2011). Overall, seven teams from the 2014 field are back, while Point (Ga.) and Reinhardt (Ga.) are the only first-timers.
How They Got Here: A 21-17 loss in Ashland to fifth-ranked Montana Tech was all that kept SOU from its second Frontier title in four years. By virtue of winning the conference, the Diggers earned an automatic berth in the field, and the Raiders were granted the second of six at-large bids.
After winning their final four games by an average of 27.8 points and finishing second in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference with an 8-1 circuit record, the Coyotes were ranked high enough to take the fourth at-large bid. Their only loss was a 14-7 decision on Oct. 17 at No. 8 Tabor (Kan.) — but that was also the only ranked opponent they've faced. Dating back to early 2013, they've dropped eight straight against ranked foes.
Playoff Picture: Quarterfinal and semifinal games will be played on campus sites on Nov. 28 and Dec. 5, and the title game will be held in Daytona Beach, Fla., for the second straight year on Dec. 19. The playoff is not bracketed; the NAIA office will determine the next round's pairings and hosts on Sunday with revenue and geography traditionally being key considerations.
If all first-round hosts win — and they went 8-0 in 2014 and are 33-7 in the last five years — SOU's next likely opponent would be No. 2 Baker (Kan.), which is 10-1 and has a first-round date with No. 15 Point.
Head-to-Head: Not only will this mark the Raiders' first meeting with Kansas Wesleyan — they've never played any of the 10 teams that currently make up the KCAC.
Championship Series History: This is SOU's sixth appearance in the NAIA FCS. The Raiders are 5-0 in the first round (with four of those wins recorded in Ashland), but prior to last year had never been past the second. As the No. 8 seed in 2014, the Raiders handled No. 9 MidAmerica Nazarane (Kan.) 44-26 by breaking a 17-all tie with a field goal on the last play of the first half that triggered a 27-3 spurt; they upset No. 1 Carroll (Mont.) 45-42 in the quarterfinals by overcoming a 35-18 deficit entering the fourth quarter; shook No. 3 Saint Xavier (Ill.) 62-37 with 643 yards of offense in the semifinals; and blew out No. 7 Marian (Ind.) 55-31 for their first title with eight takeaways and the highest point-total in a championship since 1988 in a game that was over midway through the second quarter at 31-7.
SOU was the first public school to win the title since 1999, and the first from the state of Oregon to win it since Linfield claimed the NAIA Div. II crown in 1986. The Raiders totaled 203 points during the run, the most since NAIA went to one division in 1997, and were the second team to win their last three games away from home since then.
KWU is 0-2 all-time in the NAIA FCS, losing 48-0 to Evangel (Mo.) in 2001 and 45-7 to Sioux Falls in '02.
Meet the Coaches: Craig Howard, the 2014 Rawlings-NAIA Coach of the Year, is 42-16 in his fifth season at SOU. This is his third postseason appearance; the Raiders also advanced to the quarterfinals under his guidance in 2012. His teams are 20-3 when playing in Ashland. Defensive backs coach Nathan Chin has been an assistant at SOU for 10 different seasons, five of which the Raiders have advanced to the postseason.
KWU is led by Matt Drinkall in his second season. An alumnus of Western Illinois, Drinkall initially served as a student assistant at University of Iowa for three years after suffering a career-ending injury as a player with the Hawkeyes. He was also the offensive coordinator at Saint Ambrose (Iowa) when it was upset by No. 10 SOU in the 2012 first round, 45-28.
The Month of Melvin: SOU running back Melvin Mason appears ready to pick up where he left off last postseason after rushing 16 times for 91 yards and three touchdowns in last week's win. He has nine rushing TDs and 10 total this season, bringing his career total to 36 TDs — the third-highest in Raider history. He also had 10 scores at this time last year before erupting for eight in the last three rounds of the playoffs, with four against both Carroll and Marian.
For the season, the Raiders are led in rushing yardage by Mason (674) and quarterback Tanner Trosin (639), who have pushed them to a team average of 5.6 yards per attempt on 41.5 attempts per game. Nine different Raiders have contributed to a total of 35 rushing TDs, 10 more than they scored during the 2014 regular season in one extra game.
Retzlaff on the Mend: One especially encouraging development of last week's win was the presence of Matt Retzlaff, who caught seven passes for 74 yards with an 18-yard TD and returned two kickoffs for a total of 86 yards. In and out for the latter part of the season due to injury, the all-conference performer had previously caught just five passes since the end of September. He enters the postseason with 29 career TDs — including 24 receiving, tying him with his brother Ryan for the fifth-most in SOU history — and was SOU's top receiving threat in last year's playoffs with 23 catches for 361 yards and three scores.
Don't Dive on it!: Jaylenn Hart's 24-yard fumble-recovery return for a TD last week kept alive a strange but healthy trend: The Raider defense has returned four fumble-recoveries for TDs in the last four games after doing it three times in SOU's previous 75 games. The Raiders have 23 total takeaways this season (led by Karrington Jones' five interceptions) and have held opponents to exactly five yards per play — down from 5.6 in the 2014 regular season for the lowest mark since Howard's arrival.
• Teran Togia leads the Raiders in receptions with 36 for 385 yards and Adonis Griffin owns 28 for 421 yards. Last year, the pair combined for 11 catches for 120 yards.
• In the special teams ranks, Thomas Giddens is No. 2 in the NAIA at 43 yards per punt attempt. After nailing 36- and 30-yard field-goal attempts last week, Marcus Montano is 9-of-12 on the season and perfect on seven tries inside 40 yards.
• Including ties, an astounding 11 different Raiders have led the team in tackles at least once this season.
• SOU's offense is No. 2 in the nation in third-down conversion percentage (53.7), sixth in points per game (43.1) and eighth in average yardage (483).
• SOU's defense ranks 11th in sacks per game (3), led by Joseph Lealofi's five and Sam Woods' 4 ½. Fourteen different Raiders have registered at least one.
• The Raiders are giving up 90 yards per game in penalties, the seventh-most in the NAIA.
Home History: SOU is 89-56 all-time at Raider Stadium and 9-2 against the last 11 ranked opponents to visit.
About Kansas Wesleyan: The Coyotes may not have been to the playoffs in a while, but this is not some downtrodden program: They appeared in the top-25 rankings in parts of 10 seasons from 2000-12. They got back this season with the fourth-best offense in the NAIA in terms of average yardage (518.4) and first downs (26.1), and a defense that is fifth in total sacks (34 ½) and ninth in opponents' scoring (16.7).
Behind senior quarterback Jake Curran, the Coyotes have been held under 27 points just once all season. Curran averages 294.7 passing yards, the fourth-most in the nation, and has 34 total TDs (28 passing) with 10 interceptions. Joe Vela (75.4 yards, 5 TDs) and Albert Geason (72.8 yards, 7 TDs) are the team's leading receivers, and Miles Balthazor is the leading rusher (672 yards, 10 TDs). Defensively, Tyrone Wright (5) and Michael Guerrero (4) have combined for nine interceptions, and Christian McQueen has seven sacks.