ASHLAND — Craig Howard kept the faith. A lot of faith. Perhaps too much faith.
But in the end — in the very end — the Southern Oregon Raiders rewarded their first-year head football coach in the best way possible.
The Raiders defense bottled up Webber International and scored seven points itself and linebacker Mike Springer came through with the game-clinching interception late in the fourth quarter as Southern Oregon gave Howard his first victory at SOU, 15-10, Saturday at Raider Stadium.
"(The coaches) never got down on us," said Springer, who led the Raiders (1-3) with 11 tackles. "They believed in us, they know what we're capable of."
That belief was put to the test Saturday. Southern Oregon converted just 5 of 17 third downs, was denied on two risky fourth-down attempts (including a fourth-and-2 from their own 30), rushed for just 42 yards and fumbled four times. But the SOU defense overcame it all by making the visiting Warriors (0-3) look even more abysmal — 210 yards of offense, 3-for-18 on third downs, five turnovers, 11 penalties.
Yeah, it was ugly. Which was fine by Howard thanks to the final outcome.
Afterward, the Raiders huddled and Howard, all smiles, asked for volunteers to give props to teammates they "love, honor and respect." Kudos were dolled out liberally, but it was the defense that earned most of the praise.
Besides Springer's big play, sophomore defensive back RaSjeon Hines scored a touchdown following a strip, SOU had four sacks, a safety and held the Warriors to 77 yards rushing on 41 attempts, an average of 1.9 yards per rush.
"They carried us today and our offense has got to start moving the ball," Howard said. "We're beat up. We've got to get healthy on offense and we've got to get more weapons there."
The Warriors' last gasp drive began at their own 22-yard line with 1:36 to go. Quarterback Torrance Moise scrambled for 18 yards to get the ball near midfield with about a minute left, and completed back-to-back passes to give Webber International a first-and-10 at the SOU 38 with 15 seconds to go. Warriors' receiver Jamal Rodman failed to get out of bounds and the seconds continued to tick away as Moise took the next snap. He stepped into the pocket and threw a bullet over the middle. Springer cut off the intended receiver and made a diving catch at the 18-yard line to seal it.
"We knew they were going to the air," said Springer, a senior who has made a successful switch to defense after playing fullback last year. "(Moise) was getting loose out of the spread, getting like five, six yards, but they needed a touchdown. It happened so fast.
"It was awesome. We finally got one. You start to question everything, but we know we can play now."
Moise, who replaced starter Chris Hart in the second quarter, completed 10 of 19 passes for 50 yards and also picked up 53 yards rushing.
SOU quarterback Austin Dodge, making his first start at Raider Stadium after redshirting last year, completed 17 of 36 passes for 188 yards. He was picked off once, but was also plagued by dropped passes, including two would-be touchdowns in the first half.
SOU's offense managed only one touchdown, but the timing could not have been better. Only minutes after Mason Prater's 22-yard field goal gave Webber International a 10-9 lead late in the third quarter, Patrick Donahue returned the ensuing kickoff 61 yards to set up the Raiders at the WI 35. The spectacular run brought the home crowd back to life, and six plays later Manny Barragan, starting in place of the injured Brandon Baldwin, powered in from a yard out to put SOU back on top.
The Raiders' first touchdown set the tone for the SOU defense. It was the first play from scrimmage and it began with a simple swing pass out to Brayun Andrews. Several Raiders converged on the ball for a gang tackle, including Hines, who ripped the ball loose and rumbled 43 yards for a thrilling touchdown.
"I think Southern Oregon came out to play in the first half and I'm not sure we did," Webber International (Fla.) head coach Kelly Scott said.
It turned out to be one of the few highlights of the day that involved a Raider bursting into the open field while holding a football.
The SOU safety came after a high snap that sailed over Webber International punter Adam Riley's head in the first quarter. Besides that, the Raiders were held scoreless until Barragan's dive. Not that they didn't have chances — Tyler Crowley's 30-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter was blocked, and a fake field goal attempt from the WI 6 failed when Paul Sweeney's pass fell incomplete.
Later, the Raiders inexplicably gambled on fourth down at their own 30. Bad idea. Marshawn Friloux was stuffed for no gain, and seven plays later Prater's kick gave the Warriors the lead.
"The kids looked at me and they said, 'Let's go for it, let's go for it,'" Howard said of the risky call. "These guys have gone through so much and I want them to have success, and they didn't that time. That was a coaching error because we were playing great defense. It could have cost us the game."
As for the struggles on offense, Dodge, who took over for former starter Mike McDonald last week, said it's a work in progress.
"Learning just comes with time," Dodge said. "We're trying to get it done as quick as we can in the classroom every day — the biggest work for a quarterback is in the classroom, it's not on the field. We're getting it done."
Southern Oregon 15 ,Webber International 10
Webber International 0 0 10 0 —10
Southern Oregon 9 0 6 0 —15
SOU — Hines 43 fumble return (Crowley kick)
SOU — Brown safety
WI — Moise 1 run (Prater kick)
WI — FG Prater 22
SOU — Barragan 1 run (Dodge pass failed)
First Downs 15 12
Rushes-Yards 41-77 32-42
Passing Yards 133 188
Comp-Att-Int 19-39-2 17-37-1
Total Yards 210 230
Punts 9-37.3 8-36.5
Fumbles-lost 3-3 4-2
Penalties-yards 11-94 8-65
Webber International — Fielder 16-77, Moise 11-45, Day 2-3, DeJesus 1-3, Hart 10-(minus 22), Team 1-(minus 29).
Southern Oregon — Barragan 18-39, Friloux 10-9, Team 1-(minus 1), Dodge 3-(minus 5).
Webber International — Hart 9-20-1 83, Moise 10-19-1 50.
Southern Oregon — Dodge 17-36-1 188, Sweeney 0-1-0 0.
Webber International — Rodman 7-46, Andrews 5-37, Nelson 4-45, Day 2-7, Fielder 1-(minus 2).
Southern Oregon — Otaguro 6-50, Olson 4-59, McKenzie 2-61, Barragan 2-6, Friloux 1-6, Hill 1-5, Donahue 1-1.