It is the time of year that means most to football fans.
It is the time of year that means most to football fans. Gray skies and cold mountain winds whip away the heat and promise of summer and replace them with the cold, hard reality of fall.
Busted knuckles, bloodied knees and taped-up extremities will only increase from here. Early season losses can crash impossibly high hopes while miraculous come-from-behind victories can propel teams to heights unimagined. The grind has begun.
For the Southern Oregon University Raiders (1-0), the summer promise of a playoff trip may be turning to a hard reality. For senior linebacker Jake Kyle, the promise of a new career is being forged into a season to remember.
However, reality is not always what it seems. Some will say SOU's valiant win in La Grande is a harbinger of future success. For the Raider defense however, it was a blessing in disguise. Masked behind a 34-30 victory are some telling statistics that would suggest Eastern Oregon should have won the game: 5.2 yards per carry, a five-minute advantage in time of possession and, perhaps most telling, a 30-14 lead with about six minutes left in the game.
Kyle was named team defensive player-of-the-week for his stellar performance against EOU: 11.5 tackles, one forced fumble and a sack. But, his efforts alone will not carry the team this week, let alone all season. For SOU to forge its own identity this fall much more will be expected in Burnaby, British Columbia when the Raiders take on Simon Fraser University. Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. Saturday.
First things first though — a win is a win and the Raiders will take it. In strange circumstances, like a 20-point scoring spurt with less than six minutes on the clock, coaches may throw out most stats, but will always find learning lessons to grow on. After a sloppy victory, there will be plenty to review.
When the Raiders take their trip up north to play this Saturday, they will hopefully bring a little more to the table early on.
"We need to be more physical and play better team defense," says defensive coordinator Berk Brown. For SOU, a team traditionally strong on defense, this means a renewed commitment to focus and mental preparation in practice.
"Big step, we need to be focused," says Kyle. "This week we need to see what their formations are and react quickly. If we can successfully stop the run, fill the gaps we are supposed to, and recognize their formations we should win no problem."
Getting a win may end up being no problem, but the same can't be said of Kyle's journey to SOU. The senior played two seasons at Shasta Junior College before accepting a scholarship to Division II Arkansas Tech. One season in the south was enough for the west coast product and after a few telephone calls to head coach Steve Helminiak, Kyle was putting on the Red and Black.
"I didn't like being away from home so much," says the 6-foot, 200-pound linebacker. "I talked with (Helminiak) and he said he was more than happy to have me here."
The opportunity for a fresh start intrigued the talented player, and he quickly found a home in Ashland. After that, it was a matter of putting in the work.
"(Kyle) is not a guy who leads with a lot of words," says Brown, describing his hard-working lieutenant. "He flat-out leads by example "… flat-out, guys look at him and see there is no doubt he is working hard."
Because he was a new face on the team, Kyle felt the only thing he could do was put his head down and work hard.
"This is my first year here," he said. "I haven't really earned the right to lead anybody. I just try to do what's best for the team. I want to do my job as best I can."
Turns out his best was pretty good and the senior helped lead a team comeback for the ages. Here's hoping that his best leads to another SOU victory without the flair for late-game drama.
If that happens and the team gets on a roll, who knows what can happen. But if Kyle has his say this team will forge its own identity and a little history on the way.
"You get a feeling when you put on the Raider uniform that you a part of history," he said, "and we are going to create our own history by winning a national championship."