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Southern Oregon University Quarterback Chase Kuntz passing the ball, while fellow QB Craig Contreras looks on, during practice on Saturday.[PHOTO BY: LARRY STAUTH JR]

It's go-time for Raiders vs. EOU

The encore to Charlie Hall’s impressive debut season at Southern Oregon University is upon us.

Training camp — done.

Having to prepare for a season opener indoors because of smoke — done.

Clear skies greeted the beginning to the Raiders’ game week preparations. And you know they’re hoping their play on the field resembles the quality of the picturesque view that returned to Raider Stadium on Monday.

The No. 4-nationally ranked Raiders, with aspirations of making a run in 2018 that resembles that of 2017, begin year No. 2 under Hall this afternoon against rival Eastern Oregon in Le Grande, the 75th meeting between the two schools. SOU, the reigning Frontier Conference champions, have 16 starters back from last season’s team that ran the table in the regular season and finished 12-1 overall, suffering its only loss of the season in the national semifinals.

“The reason why we’re using momentum as a theme this year is that let’s use that, but the momentum has to stay in motion based on what we do this year,” Hall said. “We do have the returning starters, the experience, the confidence from a year ago, but it still has to be this team that really activates all of those things and makes it happen on Saturday.”

To say the Raiders’ three weeks of preseason camp was anything but routine would be an understatement.

Southern Oregon was forced to practice inside Lithia Motors Pavilion and the new student rec center for a good portion of camp due to smoke from area wildfires smothering the Rogue Valley. Hall was complimentary of both his assistant coaches and players for just rolling with the less-than-ideal conditions — something that was also common as last season approached as well.

“I think given all of the obstacles we faced, it well pretty well,” Hall said. “We were faced with some of the worst air quality in the nation as we were trying to have a fall camp, so we did what we could. Thank goodness we have a gym that we didn’t have a year ago or else we would have been working out at Ashland High at 10 o’clock at night or something.”

But, for the past week, the Raiders’ sole focus has been on Eastern Oregon.

The Mountaineers already have one game under their belt, beating The College of Idaho 24-21 in Le Grande last Saturday.

Eastern Oregon (1-0 overall, 1-0 Frontier) — which was picked to finish sixth in the conference’s preseason coaches’ poll — racked up 452 yards of total offense in its season-opening win.

“What caught my eye is that you see a team that has returning quarterback and is playing with confidence,” Hall said of Eastern Oregon. “They had some execution on offense that shows they have some returning players there — especially at the quarterback position.

“They’re similar to where they were last year, but just a little bit better because of that experience, so that makes it a little bit of a concern heading into this week because they’ve got some confidence and they’ll continue to get better.”

Of course, SOU doesn’t have a returning starter under center with All-American Tanner Trosin graduating after a banner 2017 season. But the Raiders did enter game week knowing who their new starting quarterback is.

Now, the keys to the Raiders’ historically explosive offense — a unit that has averaged 43 points and more than 530 yards per game since 2012 — are now in the hands of redshirt sophomore Wyatt Hutchinson, who will be making his first-ever collegiate start this afternoon.

Hutchinson, who spent the 2016 season at Western Oregon before transferring to SOU, won the four-player quarterback battle that stretched all the way back to spring practice.

The 6-foot, 190-pound Hutchinson played sparingly as Trosin’s backup last season, attempting just four passes.

“He has to stay within the make up or our game plan and the progression of our pass game,” Hall said of Hutchinson. “I think the offensive line is coming back and they’re better. You have returning running backs in Ray (Vega) and Austin May, so the ability to run the ball and take some of the pressure off the quarterback is going to be critical. But when we do run the ball, there’s always a pass attached to that, and those passes are typical high-percentage throws.”

Above all else, game day is here.

The chance to officially begin their Frontier Conference title defense is here — which, besides the smoke going away, is a welcome sight to see.

Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.

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