Craig Howard would have been proud of this one.
On a day dedicated to their late head coach, the Southern Oregon Raiders bludgeoned the fast-fading Carroll College Saints 35-14 Saturday, coasting through most of the second half after running, passing and — in what has emerged as the team’s most striking upgrade — sacking their way to a 35-0 halftime lead at Raider Stadium.
In the team’s first home game since Howard died unexpectedly in January, the 13th-ranked Raiders easily kept their perfect start going through Week 4, riding another sensational all-around performance by quarterback Tanner Trosin and the team’s resurgent defense to another impressive Frontier Conference victory.
After the win, which improved the Raiders to 4-0 overall and in the Frontier, new head coach Charlie Hall handed the game ball to Howard’s sister Lynn, who hugged Hall before giving the team an emphatic “Atta boy.”
“Coach Howard’s …always in the back of our mind,” said senior linebacker Isiah Carter, who had three of the Raiders’ seven sacks. “But today, especially being the dedication game, we all walked past that (memorial) rock earlier today, touched it and let him know that we’re going to hold it down for him as he’s watching down on us, smiling.”
The reeling Saints, who fell to 1-3 overall and in the Frontier, scored two second-half touchdowns to make the final score more respectable, but that only prolonged the inevitable after the Raiders ransacked Carroll’s defense to the tune of 408 yards of total offense and 16 first downs in the first two quarters. SOU finished with a 458-307 advantage in yards gained.
Trosin, back for a second chance at his senior year after suffering a broken foot in Week 2 last season and receiving a medical redshirt, continued his epic start by completing 20 of 32 passes for 333 yards and two touchdowns and running for two more scores. He did most of his damage in the opening half, completing 13 of 19 for 287 yards before assuming a game-manager role for most of the second half, when he was tagged with his first interception of the season — a tipped bomb — after 10 TD passes.
“I think it just validated all the energy that the players put into the dedication week, and they were focused and ready to play,” Hall said of SOU’s quick start. “We were pretty sharp in the first half.”
Big plays by the Raiders, both on offense and defense, kept the near-capacity crowd of 3,818 entertained through the first 30 minutes. Highlights included:
• Rey Vega’s 50-yard touchdown scoot around the left end on SOU’s second play from scrimmage, which gave the Raiders a 6-0 lead only 23 seconds into the game. He finished with 76 yards rushing on 11 carries.
• Jason Shelley’s 33-yard pass from Trosin barely two minutes later, an early sign that SOU’s aerial assault would survive the absence of leading receiver Bronson Ader (injured).
• Each of Carter’s three sacks, including a tone-setter that derailed Carroll’s first offensive series when the 6-foot, 215-pound wrecking ball crunched Tanner Gustavsen on a third-and-2 play.
• Trosin’s 64-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Suell, who led the Raiders with five catches for 123 yards.
• Trosin’s spectacular exclamation point. The wiry signall-caller from Folsom, California, took off on a second-and-goal from the 10, swerved to his right and split a pair of 200-pound defensive backs — McBride Galt and Tucker Johnson — as he rolled into the end zone with 1:12 to go.
Trosin’s capper, similar in head-down style to his 12-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter, sent the Raiders into the locker room on a high note, and they received a standing ovation from the fans as they filed into the locker room, most touching the recently-installed memorial plaque honoring Howard (it’s fixed to a rock and has been dubbed Howard Rock West) en route. It also continued a trend of solid opening halves. SOU has led at the break in each of its games and by a combined score of 66-7 the last two weeks.
“This group, I think, for the most part is pretty naturally fired up,” Hall said. “It’s a mature group. A lot of guys have been around so they don’t get caught up with too much of the fanfare that you could get caught up in. I think they’re more focused on just the task at hand.”
The second half was sluggish by comparison, with the Raiders managing only three first downs and 50 yards of total offense after the break. Carroll had something to do with that. The Saints converted five third downs and two fourth downs behind sidearm quarterback Gustavsen (18-for-35, 195 yards) and controlled the clock, but by then clock control was hardly their biggest problem.
Still, when Gustavsen hit Paul Hart with a 5-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the fourth quarter to cap a 77-yard drive and bring his team within 22 points of SOU and the Saints’ defense followed by forcing a three-and-out, the visitors seemed to revel in a subtle momentum shift. But the Raiders defense, which entered the game as the Frontier Conference’s best in terms of both points and yards allowed, responded by flattening Carroll running back Ryan Walsh on fourth-and-1 from the 50.
“I think in 2015 we kind of started the trend to want to turn it into a defensive program, and I think over the last two seasons we’ve had a lot of young guys as well as coaches that buy into the idea of being a defensive program,” said senior safety Oshay Dunmore, who had five tackles. “Of course we know we can score a lot of points every game, but if we can start limiting teams to less points it’ll require us to score less. I think it’s just a burden we’ve taken on ourselves as a defensive corps.”
Carroll’s next drive stalled at midfield, too, and soon thereafter the Raiders, who continued their squeaky-clean play by committing only two penalties and one turnover, were celebrating their first 4-0 start since 2014, when they opened the season 6-0 before stumbling at Carroll.
“It’s a confidence thing,” Hall said of the defensive rejuvenation, which has come only a season after SOU was surrendering 34 points and 429 yards a game on average. “I just feel like that’s where the strength of our experience is. When you look at Isiah Carter, you look at Sam Woods, you look at Armando Gauger, you look at Keegan Lawrence. Those guys are all veteran, experienced players that come with super-high expectations. They want to right the wrongs of last year, they’ve been very focused and we’ve cut back on dumb penalties. We’ve been very turnover conscious defensively. So the things that help you win we’ve been working on and it’s paid off.”
The win allowed the Raiders to keep pace with fifth-ranked Montana Tech (4-0, 4-0), which throttled No. 23 Eastern Oregon 62-14.
After four straight games against teams that are each currently below .500 the Raiders’ road is expected to get a little tougher next week, when SOU hosts Rocky Mountain (3-2, 3-1 Frontier). The Battlin’ Bears beat College of Idaho 31-7 Saturday, and their two losses fall squarely in the respectable category — to No. 20 Dickinson State (43-28) and Montana Tech (34-28).
“Now we just try to focus on trying to go 1-0 next week,” Hall said. “This is good. We put a lot of energy, a lot of emotional effort into this game. But next week it’s a team with a winning record. They’ll have confidence, they’ll have the same things that we bring to the table. We just get them at home.”
Southern Oregon 35, Carroll 14
At Raider Stadium
SOU — Vega 50 run (Montano kick)
SOU — Shelley 33 pass from Trosin (Montano kick)
SOU — Trosin 12 run (Montano kick)
SOU — Suell 64 pass from Trosin (Montano kick)
SOU — Trosin 10 run (Montano kick)
C — Ali 1 run (Torgerson kick)
C — Hart 5 pass from Gustavsen (Torgerson kick)
Carroll — Walsh 17-51, Ali 10-50, Arnston 2-10, Dawson 3-8, Gustavsen 13-(-7).
Southern Oregon — Vega 11-76, Trosin 5-23, May 4-10, Boudreaux 1-9, Roots 4-7.
Carroll — Gustavsen 18-35-0 195.
Southern Oregon — Trosin 20-32-1 333.
Carroll — Sipes 5-94, Dawson 5-47, Hart 4-29, Walsh 2-17, Fossum 1-8, Ali 1-0.
Southern Oregon — Suell 5-123, Vega 4-57, Boudreaux 3-54, Shelley 1-33, Roots 2-30, Cole 1-15, Randle 1-12, Giampaoli 1-4, May 1-3, Hurd 1-2.
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.