Last week's loss to fifth-ranked Carroll College may have dealt a serious blow to Southern Oregon's NAIA playoff hopes, but that doesn't mean the Raiders don't have anything to play for Saturday against Eastern Oregon.
The 25th-ranked Raiders (6-3, 6-2 Frontier Conference) head into the final two weeks of the regular season needing two impressive victories over Eastern Oregon and Montana Tech and a lot of help in order to sneak into the NAIA's 16-team national tournament. Since they can't control the help part, the Raiders are focused on Eastern Oregon, a team that's struggled to keep up with SOU's high-octane offense.
Southern Oregon has won six straight against the Mountaineers (4-5, 4-4), including a 73-20 rout in La Grande on Sept. 21. But the Mountaineers have orchestrated a remarkable turnaround since that first head-to-head meeting, winning four of five games, including a 35-31 comeback win over Carroll on Sept. 28.
When/Where: 1 p.m. at Raider Stadium.
Matchup: Southern Oregon has won the last six games against Eastern, including a 73-20 victory on Sept. 21 in La Grande.
TV: KDRV (12-1).
"(EOU head coach) Tim Camp is a great coach and after we beat them they beat Carroll, so they have really stayed the course and they have turned their season around," said SOU head coach Craig Howard, who in his third season in Ashland has yet to lose a game at Raider Stadium. "I know they're itching to get another shot at us."
The Mountaineers struggled to sustain drives against the Raiders in the first meeting and were hurt by three turnovers. SOU ran away with a 27-point second quarter.
In their five games since, the Mounties have leaned heavily on their rushing attack with devastating results. They rushed for 300 yards against Carroll, 250 versus Montana Western, 146 against Rocky Mountain, 316 against Montana Tech and 445 last week against Dickinson State.
Senior running back Chris McGinnis-Parker (5-foot-7, 185 pounds) is the Mounties' workhorse. He leads the team with 1,094 yards rushing and nine touchdown runs and also is third on the team in receptions (25) with 151 yards and three touchdowns receiving.
"I told the players that this is a different football team," Howard said of Eastern Oregon, which is fourth in the Frontier Conference standings, two games behind Southern Oregon.
Even if the Mountaineers are able to get their running game going Saturday, they'll probably have to slow down the Raiders to pull off the upset. That hasn't happened in the recent history between the two schools.
In the Sept. 21 game, the Raiders racked up a mind-boggling 620 yards of total offense — 382 passing, 238 rushing — and scored 38 consecutive points in a 20-minute span. Last season, SOU gained 1,348 yards against Eastern in two easy wins (68-22 and 63-35).
This time around, SOU offensive coordinator Ken Fasnacht expects the Mountaineers to mix up coverages even more than usual in an attempt to confound SOU quarterback Austin Dodge, who's thrown for 5,076 yards and 42 touchdowns, tops in the nation in both categories.
"They've been extremely aggressive with their pressure packages and I anticipate we'll see something similar to that," Fasnacht said. "They're very good up front."
A win by Southern Oregon coupled with a Rocky Mountain victory over Carroll (8-1, 7-1) would create a three-way tie atop the Frontier Conference standings heading into the final week of the regular season. The Raiders could then clinch a second consecutive league title with a win at Montana Tech. The league's tie-breaking formula would then determine which of the three teams would gain the automatic berth to nationals. That formula does not favor SOU, because the second tie-breaker is points allowed in conference play.
Not that the Raiders have only the postseason to play for. Two more wins would give them eight for the seventh time in program history. Also, Saturday is senior day.
"It was refreshing to see how quickly they got back to work (this week)," Fasnacht said. "There is still outside hope that they can play in the postseason. The only thing we can do is win our last two games and let the chips fall where they may. But our kids have responded."