Playoff spots on the line tonight in final SWC tests

Finishing third or fourth in a football conference isn't typically a goal when one sets out for a season, but by the end, it can mean everything to some teams.

Crater finds itself among that group as the Comets travel to Roseburg tonight in hopes of an upset of the fifth-ranked Indians, which conceivably could set up a tie for the two final automatic bids to the Class 6A state playoffs.

Thurston could join that group with a win over visiting North Medford and a corresponding Crater victory, making tonight's regular-season finales one of considerable interest.

"I think it's going to be a real interesting ballgame, a real interesting night," said Crater head coach John Beck. "Our kids are excited."

Top-ranked Sheldon and No. 3 South Medford have the Southwest Conference's top two spots locked up, while Roseburg is two games back at 4-2 in SWC play and 6-2 overall. Crater and Thurston each stand 3-3 in league and 5-3 overall, with Grants Pass (2-6, 1-5 SWC), North Medford (1-7, 1-5) and South Eugene (0-8, 0-6) rounding out the standings.

The top four teams in the SWC automatically qualify for the 32-team state playoff bracket, while the bottom four face play-in games next Friday. Tiebreakers are determined by head-to-head matchups, if possible, with ties involving three or more teams decided by power rankings. Thurston currently ranks eighth, one spot ahead of Roseburg and eight ahead of Crater.

The Roseburg-Crater matchup at Finlay Field offers an intriguing test that pits strength against strength, with the Indians' veer attack taking on the Comets' stiff run defense. Crater allows an average of 96 yards rushing per game, while Roseburg leans heavily on its punishing ground game to the tune of a league-high 242 yards per game.

For the Comets to have any hope at a road upset, Beck said forcing turnovers will be a key. When the Indians have struggled and in their two losses to Sheldon and South Medford, they've been hampered by their giveaways.

"We've got to have similar things happen to get a win, create turnovers," said Beck. "We've done a good job of not turning the ball over a lot and that's one thing that plays in our hands, we've got a better plus-minus turnover ratio."

The Comets have a plus-11 turnover ratio, forcing 23 to only 12 giveaways, while Roseburg is at minus-one with 18 giveaways against 17 forced turnovers.

Turnovers played a key role in Crater's 27-7 triumph over Grants Pass last week, with senior cornerback Corey Wynant returning two interceptions for touchdowns to go with a receiving TD on offense.

"Corey probably played his best game," Beck said. "Two pick-sixes and he just read it phenomenally. He really did a good job studying and the defense did a good job knowing what they were going to do schematically."

The Comets will also look to rely on a diverse running attack to help lessen the load on senior quarterback Matt "Moose" Cooper, who earned his second straight start last week in place of junior Chase Mackey, out with mononucleosis. Mackey has been able to practice some this week, but his availability is uncertain.

Cooper has completed 43 of 89 passes for 571 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions in shared time behind the center.

Crater used a tailback rotation last week of Garrett Alner, Ty Wolf and Chance Fahndrich and likely will adopt a similar strategy tonight. All three have run for more than 310 yards and four TDs apiece this season, and Beck said he feels comfortable with any of them taking their place in the backfield.

NORTH MEDFORD AT THURSTON — North Medford is a team with nothing to lose these days but will be facing a team that plays like it has nothing to lose all the time in host Thurston. The Colts utilize a no-huddle approach on offense that works in unison with a blitz-happy defense and a willingness to attempt onside kicks and two-point conversions at each opportunity.

The Black Tornado played with a lot of emotion and a little reckless abandon last week, twice going for it on fourth down in its own territory and ultimately falling short. The transition of senior Zach Tanner from quarterback to running back should be more fluid this week, but Tanner will need some running lanes to take advantage and those simply weren't supplied in last week's loss to Roseburg.

Sophomore quarterback Mark Winans struggled with getting passes out on time and in rhythm due to the Indians' pressure, but he's completed half of his passes (18-for-35) and has previously shown signs of promise. In what is expected to be his second career start, Winans will be asked to not force things against the Colts' unconventional approach built to disrupt passing lanes and pressure the quarterback.

Thurston quarterback Chad Olson has taken to the air more than anyone else in the SWC, attempting 277 passes with 180 completions for 2,485 yards, 21 TDs and 11 interceptions. The Colts also boast the SWC's top rusher in Trevor Westover, who has 1,160 yards and 10 TDs on 173 carries, and a perimeter playmaker in Devin Chappell, who has caught 54 passes for 824 yards and seven TDs.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

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