You don’t go 10-0 during the regular season without attracting a few bandwagon-hoppers along the way, and while Pete Stanton isn’t likely to label himself a Southern Oregon Raiders fan, he’s not afraid to confess his admiration for SOU’s physicality.
For the time being, Stanton’s impression is based entirely on game film, but on Saturday, Dickinson State’s head football coach will see the Raiders in person. That’s when his 13th-ranked Blue Hawks will take on fifth-ranked SOU in the first round of the 16-team NAIA Football Championship Series.
“Southern Oregon obviously has a very good team and tremendous speed,” Stanton said, “and obviously with (Tanner) Trosin at quarterback, he’s a dynamite player, just very athletic. Their guys are very athletic at receiver, very solid running back. Just a solid, very good group.”
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Raider Stadium, where Southern Oregon is 4-0 this season.
Stanton gushed about Southern Oregon’s athleticism, but his own team has earned plenty of praise itself this season.
The Blue Hawks of Dickinson, North Dakota, went 9-1 during the regular season, clinching the North Star Athletic Association with a 28-25 road win over Dakota State on Oct. 28. Their defense ranks sixth in the country in points allowed (17.5 points per game), their offense 17th in points per game (39th) and they’re led by a quarterback, sophomore Hayden Gibson, who ranks sixth nationally in pass efficiency.
Gibson has completed 63 percent of his passes for 2,441 yards and 24 touchdowns with seven interceptions. The Blue Hawks’ balanced offense also features Karsten Mack, a bruising running back who’s rushed for 1,030 yards and 14 touchdowns. As a team, DSU averages 191 yards rushing a game.
“Well, the first thing is we have to stop the run, we have to control the line of scrimmage,” SOU defensive coordinator James Gravelle said. “They tell you right now, we need to win the line of scrimmage, and that’s our main goal for ourselves, and to up front stay in our gaps, contain our gaps and let our linebackers run through.”
SOU has been adequate against the run this season, surrendering 130 yards per game on average, but is coming off its most impressive performance to date. Last week, the Raiders limited Montana Tech, a team that averaged 43 points a game, to 10 points and 91 yards rushing.
“For us, a key is going to have to be, to be able to move the football and hold on to the football, but that’s easier said than done,” Stanton said. “They’re a very, very good defensive team — the best front that we’re going to see and the most athletic secondary. They’re just very, very solid on defense.”
As important as Mack is to the Blue Hawks, the most intriguing matchup will take place every time Gibson drops back to pass. That’s because in a classic battle of strength versus strength, Saturday’s game will feature the nation’s most sack-happy team (SOU) against the offensive line that gives up the fewest. The Raiders enter the game with 49½ sacks, while Dickinson State has given up just seven.
Defensive end Sean Rogers leads the Raiders and ranks ninth nationally with 9½ sacks, outside linebacker Isiah Carter has 8½ and five more Raiders have three or more.
SOU head coach Charlie Hall said the Raiders can make life easier on themselves by forcing the Blue Hawks into passing situations.
“They’re very much a run-oriented offense,” Hall said. “They’ve got a 1,000-yard running back, and that’s always going to be tough. I think that’s always challenging because if they’re successful running the ball, that sets up the play-action pass and that challenges your eye discipline and things that you need to do to avoid the big play. And we have been victims of the big play from time to time this year.”
Southern Oregon opponents could certainly say the same, as the Raiders’ offense ranks 16th nationally in yards per game (473.3) and 23rd in points per game (35.6).
Trosin, the nation’s second-leading quarterback in passing yards (3,466 yards) and total offense (3,690), has put together a phenomenal senior season after missing most of last year with a broken foot. He will be taking part in his first playoff game since steering the Raiders to the 2015 NAIA national championship game
Trosin has plenty to work with. Sure-handed slot receiver Bronsen Ader ranks seventh nationally in receiving yards per game (103.5), while big targets Matt Boudreaux (6-foot-2, 180 pounds) and Jordan Suell (6-6, 200) each have over 600 yards receiving.
Add to those weapons a running back, Rey Vega, who’s coming off a 121-yard game, and it’s easy to see why SOU has been held below 30 points only twice all year. Oh, and Trosin can run — in fact, he ranks third on the team in rushing yards (224) and second in rushing touchdowns (seven).
“(Trosin) is a dynamite player,” Stanton said. “It’s the toughest quarterback to see, not only a guy who’s experienced and has played a lot and throws the ball very well and makes good decisions with the ball, but also has the ability to run it every time. He’s a handful and obviously one of the best players in the country, and definitely it makes it very, very difficult in preparing for them.
“You’ve got to have people aware of where he’s at and try to keep track of him, but the problem with that then is you leave guys out of the coverage, and their receivers are so good and so skilled, they find their way open. It’s just kind of a catch-22 with that.”
Southern Oregon and Dickinson State do have one common opponent, Frontier Conference member Rocky Mountain, which fell to Dickinson State 43-28 on Aug. 24 and to SOU 24-23 on Sept. 30. The Raiders nearly blew a 24-10 fourth-quarter lead against the Battlin’ Bears, escaping only after Drew Korf’s two-point conversion pass with 1 minute, 25 seconds to go sailed over the head of his intended receiver.
Dickinson State was a member of the Frontier Conference for two years before bolting the league in 2014 after going 1-19 — a rough stretch that included a 66-21 loss to SOU in the last meeting between the two teams in 2013.
Since the NAIA Football Championship Series is not a bracket, the SOU-DSU winner can only guess at its possible quarterfinal opponent based on other scores. Elite Eight matchups will be announced Sunday. NAIA playoff games are held at home sites until the championship game, which will be played in Daytona Beach, Florida, for the fourth year in a row on Dec. 16.
Not that Hall is looking that far ahead, especially after last week’s lackluster performance by the offense, which failed to convert 11 of 17 third downs, all three fourth-down tries and turned the ball over twice. Also not helping SOU’s cause last week were 19 penalties for 172 yards.
“Too many penalties, too many dropped balls,” Hall said. “Those are the things that just kill drives … and (Trosin) probably wasn’t as sharp as he’s been in the past. Again, (Montana Tech) had a very physical defensive line, probably one of the better D-lines we faced in our conference. So we’ll probably see a very similar look from Dickinson State. A three-man front, they’re all like 300, 290, 285. They’re big kids, they take up a lot of space and they’re strong. Obviously, we’ll do what we need to do.”
— Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99