ASHLAND — When it comes to understanding the immense challenge Southern Oregon’s defense is about to face, likely few Raiders are more qualified to speak on the subject than senior safety Keegan Lawrence.
That’s because three years before SOU’s coaching staff decided to move Lawrence to the defensive backfield from running back last season, he was the leading rusher for a Sherwood Bowmen team that obliterated most of its OSAA Class 5A opponents while running its version of the Wing-T offense, a deceptive, run-heavy style common enough at the prep ranks but much less popular at the collegiate level, especially on the West Coast.
Now, all that stands between Lawrence and his third trip to the NAIA national championship game is a similarly formidable Wing-T team — second-ranked Reinhardt University of Waleska, Georgia.
“It’s different to be playing against it, for sure,” Lawrence said. “Everybody just has to do their job, everybody has to sustain their gap, everyone has to read their key and their key only. …One missed tackle and they could be out the gate.”
Fifth-ranked SOU and Reinhardt are set to kickoff at 10:30 a.m. Pacific time Saturday at University Stadium in Waleska, with the winner advancing to face either top-ranked and defending national champion Saint Francis or No. 3 Morningside in the national championship game two weeks later in Daytona Beach, Florida.
The Raiders (12-0) are gunning for their third championship game appearance in the last four years after winning it all in 2014 and losing to Marian of Indiana in a 2015 championship rematch. Reinhardt (11-0), which has never won a national title, is making its second straight semifinal appearance after falling to Saint Francis a year ago.
A week after toppling fourth-ranked Lindsey Wilson on the road in Kentucky, 34-29, the Raiders will face a completely different kind of challenge Saturday. While LW was at least comparable to SOU in both style and personnel, striving for a balanced offense supported by an opportunistic defense, the Reinhardt Eagles are something else entirely, leaning heavily on the nation’s No. 1 rushing attack and a defense that ranks No. 1 against both the run and the pass.
As far as passing goes, the Eagles and their starting quarterback Dylan Wiggins do it only enough to keep opposing defenses honest — about one out of every five plays on average. Wiggins has completed 58 percent of his passes for 1,124 yards and seven touchdowns, while Reinhardt’s rushing attack-by-committee approach has yielded four running backs with between 414 and 630 yards on the ground.
“They’re just a very physical, athletic and hard-nosed team,” SOU first-year head coach Charlie Hall said. “And it’s the style of the offense. When you’re a passing team like us, I guess you can say the word finesse. That’s not in (the Eagles’) vocabulary. They’re going to play very physical and they’re going to try to come after you and try to demoralize you in the physical aspect of running the football.”
The Eagles average 360 yards rushing and 47 points per game — impressive numbers, but it’s the way they relentlessly chew up yardage that makes them difficult to prepare for. Deceptive and rigid, the Wing-T features two wing backs who, along with the quarterback, are a threat to run on every play behind a combination of kick-out and trap blocks. Formations are tight and once the center snaps the ball the explosion of movement at the line of scrimmage may appear, especially to those accustomed to watching spread or pro-style offenses, jumbled and disorganized, but it’s all carefully orchestrated to outflank defenses at the point of attack.
With fakes and counters galore, determining where that point of attack will eventually be exactly is half the battle, and Reinhardt stacks the deck by going no-huddle.
Hall said everybody on the Raiders’ defense will have a responsibility, and discipline will be the key to limiting the Eagles. To help condition players to stick with their assignments rather than be lured away from the play the Raiders’ scout offense this week has been running the Wing-T without a ball. An outsider looking in may be confused by what appears to be several tackles happening at once, but that’s no accident.
“Especially when you go back to teaching triple-option football of the old school, the wishbone, that concept of practicing without a ball was popular because it wasn’t about tackling the ball, it was about tackling the person you’re in charge of — the dive player, the quarterback player, the pitch player,” Hall said. “Everybody’s gotta get to their responsibilities and that’s just how you’ve got to play that. If everybody goes to one thing that’s how these teams thrive, because (defenses) are undisciplined. So we’ll try to get our kids where they need to be, and then you’ve got to make a tackle.”
Lawrence knows exactly what that looks like from both sides of the ball after having thrived as Sherwood’s featured back. He rushed for 2,030 yards and 31 touchdowns while averaging an astounding 17 yards per carry as a high school senior. These days, Lawrence is SOU’s third-leading tackler and one of three Raiders with three or more interceptions, and he’s looking forward to the challenge of facing an offense he once thrived in.
“Everyone has their own person that they’re keying on,” he said, “so whether it’s a guard or a fullback or a wing back or anybody, you just gotta make sure that you’re doing that and that only. Because if they bring a guard this way but bring a jet sweep this way, you never know. Guys have to go to their spot. And they’re very athletic, I’d say. It’s probably one of the smaller (offensive) lines we’ve seen, but my offensive line (at Sherwood) was very small, too. They’re small but they’re feisty and they run hard and they block hard.”
With so many players contributing to the Eagles’ attack, nobody on the team ranks among the nation’s leaders in any major offensive category. But Reinhardt head coach James Miller said sophomore running back Montralius Mosely is the team’s game-breaker.
Mosely’s small by football standards — he’s listed at 5-foot-8, 175 pounds — but he’s an instinctive runner who’s proven to be a perfect fit for the Wing-T, gaining 630 yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging 10.5 yards per rush.
“When (Mosely) gets the ball in his hands he’s got the ability to make a play a home run,” Miller said. “He’s a kid that if you take him outside and you run him in a 40, he’s probably not going to run the best time, but when you put pads and a helmet on him, ain’t nobody going to catch him. He’s just a football player and he does a really good job of making people miss. He runs strong, he’s very physical and he’s just a tough guy to tackle and he has the ability, like I said, to turn a 5-yard run into a 70-yard run, so us having the ability to give him the ball is important.
“But we’ve got other guys as well that we feel really good about. … and the best part about them all is they’re all unselfish. They root for each other. They don’t care if they don’t get the ball 20, 25-plus times, so that’s what makes it fun and makes it unique.”
When Southern Oregon has the ball, it will be facing — statistically at least — the best defense it has seen in years. Reinhardt is holding opponents to 201 yards per game, including 135 through the air, and 12 points per game, also tops in NAIA football. Those are the types of numbers Southern Oregon and senior quarterback Tanner Trosin have been known to surpass in a quarter or two. Trosin leads the nation in total offense (4,496 yards) and yards passing (4,129 yards), and SOU ranks third nationally in passing offense per game and 19th in points per game (37.1).
While Reinhardt’s disciplined approach has proven successful, the Raiders’ spread offense allows for a little more improvisation, and SOU has the athletes to make it hum. Besides the slippery Trosin, who has completed 63 percent of his passes for 344 yards per game and 28 touchdowns, the Raiders have a fleet of athletic receivers (Bronsen Ader, Jordan Suell and Matt Boudreaux are the big three), two explosive running backs in Rey Vega and Michael Roots and an offensive line that usually gives Trosin enough time to wind up several deep balls a game.
Ader, a sticky-handed slot, leads the Raiders with 55 catches for 909 yards and four touchdowns, and the 6-foot-6 Suell (818 yards receiving, eight TDs) and 6-foot-2 Boudreaux (716, four TDs) are dangerous deep threats.
Reinhardt didn’t have to defend a lot of bombs while bullying its way through the Mid-South Appalachian Conference. When asked about that challenge Miller underscored its significance to Saturday’s outcome.
“It’s just going to be tough,” he said. “Yeah, we’ve seen a team that runs a similar offense to (SOU) in a team we play called Faulkner, but I don’t know if we’ve seen a receiver that’s 6-6, I don’t know if we’ve seen a quarterback who can run and throw the ball like (Trosin) can.”
The key to stopping SOU? Miller says he has a few ideas, but knows it’ll come down to execution on game day.
“I think trying to put some pressure on the quarterback, and I’m not even talking about sacks,” he said. “I’m just talking about trying to make (Trosin) move off his spots, trying to make him have to make a quick decision. I think that’s really important. I think trying to be physical with their receivers, that’s important. Our DBs got a big job in front of them. We gotta stay with those receivers, we gotta play fast, we gotta make good decisions and we gotta win some 50-50 balls. They’re really, really good at winning 50-50 balls, so we gotta be good, too.”
Trosin, who’s also rushed for 367 yards and seven touchdowns, has a history of rising to the occasion in the postseason. In his last semifinal appearance two years ago, the star QB completed 27 of 39 passes for 391 yards and a touchdown and ran for 76 yards and two scores, including the game-winning 5-yard plunge with 1 minute, 15 seconds to go. And last week at Lindsey Wilson, Trosin was at it again, leading the Raiders on a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that gave SOU the lead back with 47 seconds to go.
Hall wouldn’t be surprised to see some more Trosin magic Saturday.
“I think (Trosin’s) unstoppable, both with his arms and his legs,” Hall said. “Last week (against Lindsey Wilson), and it has been really week in and week out …I thought he did a great job of converting some key third downs when guys weren’t open and he just scrambled and made some plays and got out of bounds. So again, I think that’s going to be a key and it has been ever since he was our quarterback in 2015.”
— 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