ASHLAND — After 12 wins, three playoff games and roughly 16,000 miles worth of road trips, almost certainly more than any other team in NAIA football, the Southern Oregon Raiders’ season came down to a handful of plays and, in one heart-stopping moment, a single yard.
But as he looked back Monday on the season that was, SOU head coach Charlie Hall preferred to focus on the journey itself rather than Saturday’s 37-34, double-overtime loss to Reinhardt in the NAIA national semifinals.
“The true character of the team was very unique and special and I’ll always remember that,” he said. “When things looked to be kind of at their darkest, there was a glimmer of hope somewhere that got us over that. I guess we sort of ran out of magic in this game.”
The fifth-ranked Raiders were on the verge of pulling off what would have been a shocking comeback after Isiah Carter returned a fumble 54 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 1 minute, 50 seconds to go in the fourth quarter. But the Eagles’ Nick Marquez made a 48-yard game-tying field goal — his longest of the season — with 40 seconds left and Reinhardt clinched its first-ever national championship game appearance when Trevae Cain bulldozed in from the 2.
Cain’s plunge on first-and-goal came one play after he gained just enough on fourth-and-1 from the SOU 3 to keep the game going, and was one of several key plays following Carter’s big return that went Reinhardt’s way.
The list included a 61-yard kickoff return by Otis Odom and subsequent personal foul against the Raiders for a late hit to set up Marquez’s field goal, a just-missed 50-yard field goal attempt by SOU’s Marcus Montano at the fourth-quarter buzzer and a third-and-1 conversion by Reinhardt on its first possession of overtime.
“Crazy game, heartbreaker,” Hall said. “They’re good and they gave us some opportunities; we didn’t cash in on them as well as we could have and that’s what happens.”
The loss extinguished a season that’s as likely to be remembered for the Raiders’ primary motivation than it is for any of their on-the-field accomplishments, which included a 12-game winning streak and steady climb up the national rankings.
Former head coach Craig Howard, who led SOU to its only national championship in 2014, died suddenly last January and two months later Hall was hired to take over a program still in shock. Hall managed to retain almost the entire coaching staff, including offensive coordinator and Howard’s longtime friend Ken Fasnacht, and the players dedicated the season to Howard.
Hall said Howard’s influence was a major part of who the Raiders were all season, a connection that contributed heavy feelings to an already emotional loss in Georgia.
“They were just in shock,” he said. “There was clearly the emotion of finality for the seniors that they weren’t going to get another shot. I think the goal all along this year was to get back to Daytona for so many reasons — because they had been there their freshmen and sophomore years, and it was dedication to coach Howard. And what a great tribute to him if we had gone all the way to bring our team back to where he had once brought the program. I think the disappointment in that was evident after the game.”
With most of the defense returning along with a top-flight receiving corps, the Raiders would have had high hopes even without Tanner Trosin, but when the star quarterback who missed most of last season with a broken foot returned looking just as good or better than the player who led SOU to the 2015 national championship game, they appeared primed to do something special.
Southern Oregon’s Frontier Conference campaign, although bumpy at times, went exactly as planned, as the Raiders ran the table to enter the NAIA Football Championship Series — the 16-team playoff bracket — 10-0 and ranked No. 5 in the country, up 20 spots from where they started the season.
Besides two close games in the middle of the season against Rocky Mountain and Eastern Oregon, the Raiders dominated the conference, and rocked preseason favorite Montana Tech 24-10 in Butte, Montana, in the regular-season finale Nov. 11 to sail into the postseason.
Trosin was certainly the catalyst on offense, but receivers Bronson Ader, Jordan Suell and Matt Boudreaux and running back Rey Vega made huge contributions for a unit that averaged 482 yards and 36.8 points per game.
And the Raiders defense, long a forgotten group in Ashland, emerged as one of the best in the country, leading the nation in sacks and delivering key stops time and time again. Linebackers Devvon Gage, Tyson Cooper and Carter, defensive backs Keegan Lawrence and Oshay Dunmore and defensive ends Sam Woods and Sean Rogers were the standouts.
It was more of the same in the postseason, as Southern Oregon opened with a 55-24 rout of No. 13 Dickinson State, followed by a 34-29 quarterfinal win over fourth-ranked and previously undefeated Lindsey Wilson.
Against LW, and playing 2,000 miles away from home in Columbia, Kentucky, the Raiders kept their championship hopes alive when Trosin led a 75-yard touchdown drive that gave SOU back the lead with 47 seconds to go.
That set up an even longer road trip to Waleska, Georgia, where the Raiders led for a grand total of about three minutes before Carter’s miraculous fumble return, which was set up when Rogers flattened Reinhardt quarterback Billy Hall, jarring the ball loose.
From that point on the Raiders had several opportunities to put the Eagles away, but couldn’t.
“Hindsight is always 20/20,” coach Hall said. “Shoulda, coulda done some different things to maybe give us a better chance, but we were in position to make some plays. …Certainly momentum was on our side (heading into overtime). I thought our defense looked like they had done some good things and had pretty much shut them out touchdown-wise in the second half. But they’re a strong, physical team. You put them on a short field and they can kind of go back to their base game plan.”
Now, Southern Oregon will have to find a way to replace a cadre of playmakers who have exhausted their eligibility. Of the 40 Raiders who saw action Saturday, 12 suited up for the last time. That may not sound like a huge number, but Hall pointed out that nine were starters — five on defense and four on offense.
All will be missed, but perhaps none more than Trosin, the slippery gunslinger who shot up the depth chart when he arrived in Ashland as a little-known junior college transfer 2½ years ago and wound up leading the Raiders to two of the best postseason runs in program history.
“It’s hard to replace him,” Hall said. “Player of the year in the conference, potential All-American candidate. I think that’s a huge replacement. There are guys that have been in his wings, that have taken some reps. That’s going to be the biggest challenge, trying to develop that next quarterback.”
— 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