ASHLAND — CJ Jones knew he was beat, so as Rocky Mountain tight end Darneail Jenkins broke free toward the back of the end zone on the do-or-die 2-point conversion attempt, all the Southern Oregon cornerback could do was watch and hope for the best.
Or, as Jones would say, hope for a gift from above.
“Coach (Craig) Howard saved the day once again,” Jones said afterward, shaking his head. “Coach Howard’s spirit is really here, alive.”
Rocky Mountain quarterback Drew Korf overthrew a wide open Jenkins after the Battlin’ Bears had rallied almost all the way back from a 14-point deficit in the final nine minutes, and ninth-ranked Southern Oregon held on for a 24-23 victory in a key Frontier Conference collision Saturday at Raider Stadium.
In a battle between two of the league’s top three teams, the Bears rallied behind Korf, their backup quarterback, to cut a 24-10 deficit to a single point when Korf connected with Max Gray on fourth-and-goal from the 1 with 1 minute, 25 seconds to go in the game.
Their offense rolling, the Bears opted to roll the dice and go for 2, and appeared to have a pretty good shot at cashing in after Jenkins burst free. But Korf, who completed 9 of 10 passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns during Rocky Mountain’s last two drives, threw over SOU linebacker Isiah Carter but just beyond the reach of Jenkins.
“They were hitting us with rub routes down in the red zone,” Jones said. “They were beating us with that all game. We communicated it and my guy went in. I was going to jump the rub route from the back and the slant was left wide open. That was miscommunication from me. That would have been my fault.”
The gaffe turned out to be only a footnote, however, after Jenkins’ diving attempt in the back of the end zone came up well short.
“I was right over here on the other side and I saw it,” said SOU free safety Keegan Lawrence, who led the Raiders defense with 11 tackles and an interception. “We got a little bit lucky on that, but hey, luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”
“My stomach, ughhh,” Jones added, describing his view from behind Jenkins. “Until I saw the ball hit the ground, I was sick.”
The Bears’ onside kick attempt was batted out of bounds and SOU quarterback Tanner Trosin iced the game with two keel downs, clinching the Raiders’ biggest win yet under first-year head coach Charlie Hall. Southern Oregon improved to 5-0 overall heading into its bye week and is all alone at 5-0 in the Frontier Conference, a half-game ahead of idle Montana Tech (4-0) and two games ahead of Rocky Mountain (3-3, 3-2 Frontier).
The Raiders have five regular season games to go, including a regular-season finale Nov. 11 at fifth-ranked Montana Tech that’s beginning to look like a conference championship game. To keep pace with Montana Tech, however, the Raiders will have to continue to overcome some injury woes that struck again Saturday. Already missing starting center Christmas Aumua and leading receiver Bronsen Ader, the Raiders were dealt another blow in the first quarter when senior defensive tackle Sam Woods, a three-year starter, re-injured his left arm and could not return.
The Raiders defense still sacked Korf and Bears’ starter Jacob Bakken a combined seven times and held Rocky Mountain to 380 yards of total offense, showing a resiliency which Hall underscored during his postgame speech.
“When we needed it the most, you showed grit,” he told the Raiders. “We talked about that in fall camp. We talked about one of our pillars, about having grit when things are going bad, and having that was incredibly important and it’s going to be more important as we go down the road. …I said something back in fall camp, that if you’re a backup your day’s going to come. We’re going to need you to win a meaningful game. That game came today.”
That was especially the case for Dalton Yoder, a freshman tight end from Toledo, Washington, who sat out SOU’s first four games as a redshirt but found out Tuesday that he would be suiting up and playing against Rocky Mountain. Then, two plays after a line-drive punt by Rocky Mountain’s Matt Larson was returned by Dominic Giampaoli to the Bears 4 midway through the third quarter, Yoder’s number was called.
On second-and-goal from the 5, Trosin faked a handoff out of the shotgun and threw to a wide-open Yoder, who jumped up and grabbed the ball to give the Raiders a 20-10 lead.
“The ball’s in the air, I saw it, and I was just like, ‘Just come down with it and I’m OK,’” Yoder said. “When you know it’s right there and it’s super easy I think that adds some pressure that you put on yourself. I’m so open that if I don’t catch this I look like an idiot.”
After scoring the first touchdown of the game on Trosin’s 8-yard keeper early in the second quarter, the Raiders struggled to move the ball the rest of the half and went into the locker room facing their first halftime deficit of the season, 10-7.
It didn’t last long. The Raiders forced the Bears to punt on their first drive of the second half, then SOU promptly drove 76 yards on seven plays, reclaiming the lead for good on Michael Roots’ 23-yard touchdown run up the middle.
The Southern Oregon defense forced another three-and-out on Rocky Mountain’s next possession, setting up Yoder’s surprise appearance.
The Raiders managed only a field goal the rest of the way, but it was a big one. Marcus Montano took the field moments after Trosin missed an open Jordan Suell in the end zone on third-and-12 from the 31 and, shaking off a short-range miss in the first half, split the uprights on a 48-yard attempt.
Trosin completed 27 of 44 passes for 323 yards and a touchdown, with one interception. Matt Boudreaux had five catches for 116 yards, and Roots eight carries for 59 yards.
The Bears stuck with Korf the rest of the way and the freshman from Boise, Idaho, nearly brought the visitors all the way back. He led a five-play, 69-yard drive capped by his 12-yard touchdown pass to Max Gray on third-and-11 to pull the Bears within eight.
The Raiders took over with 8:31 to go but coughed up the ball two minutes later when Isaac Hurd, having just caught a 20-yard pass from Trosin, fumbled while trying to extend the play.
The Bears faced only one third down on the ensuing 10-play drive. Considering the Bears’ hot quarterback, Hall wasn’t surprised Rocky Mountain decided against playing it safe and kicking the point-after.
“To be perfectly honest, they had a chance to make that play,” he said. “It wasn’t a very good throw and we live to play another day. You give them credit for having those kinds of guts to make that call and we just came out ahead on that one.”
Now, SOU has two weeks to prepare for a rematch with Eastern Oregon (1-3), a team the Raiders beat 31-21 Sept. 2 in Sherwood.
“We do have a two-game or more separation from the rest of the conference with a date down the road,” Hall said. “But we’re looking forward to the week off.”
“(Hall’s) all about the process,” Lawrence said. “We went 1-0 this week and on Monday we’re going to put this game behind us and we’re going to look forward to Eastern Oregon. It’ll be nice to get some guys back and get healthy. After our bye week we’re looking at Eastern Oregon and that’s it. Obviously Montana Tech might be in the back of the head, but we’re fully focused on Eastern.”
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