For all that has changed in a matter of two weeks, back-to-back losses were far from a death knell for Southern Oregon University’s playoff hopes.
With four weeks left in the regular season, however, there is one key difference: The Raiders (4-2 overall, 4-2 Frontier), now No. 14 in the NAIA coaches’ poll, need to treat every game like an elimination game. The first is at noon Pacific Time on Saturday at College of Idaho (2-5, 2-4), which this month has picked up steam with consecutive wins against Carroll (28-7) and in overtime at Montana Tech (23-20).
The Frontier’s regular-season champion (or winner by procedural tiebreaker, in the event of co-champs) will receive an automatic bid in the 16-team NAIA Championship Series field. SOU is only one game back of Montana Western — and will host the Bulldogs in the regular-season finale — but tied in second place with Eastern Oregon and Rocky Mountain. Simply put, winning out would get the Raiders into the postseason, either automatically or with an at-large bid, while another loss would complicate their position. Eight three-loss teams have advanced to the playoff over the previous five seasons, but none were admitted last year.
SOU has won 11 of 14 games against the Yotes going back to the first matchup in 1948.
They’ve played a Frontier home-and-home every year since C of I’s program was resurrected in 2014. SOU is 8-1 in those games and its wins have been by an average of 24 points.
This year’s first matchup, on Sept. 8 in Ashland, was a 35-28 Raiders win. In it, Rey Vega rushed 24 times for 158 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 22-yarder that put SOU up by two scores with five minutes left. Yotes quarterback Darius-James Peterson was sacked five times, but they out-gained the Raiders 392-306 and stayed in the game thanks to a pair of Jayden Dawson interceptions.
C of I’s lone Frontier win against the Raiders was a 44-41 overtime decision on Oct. 22, 2016. Peterson, then a freshman, got loose for 228 rushing yards and three TDs on 25 carries.
SOU is 5-1 all-time in Caldwell.
Top 25 Watch
Today, the Raiders will play as an NAIA Top 25 team for the 58th time in 61 games going back to the end of the 2013 season. They dropped seven spots to No. 14 in Monday’s poll — their lowest spot since the first regular-season rankings of 2017 — but the three other Frontier teams in the rankings got a bump: No. 15 Rocky Mountain, No. 18 Montana Western and No. 19 Eastern Oregon. Around the NAIA, two top-10 matchups are on Saturday’s slate: No. 3 Northwestern (Iowa) at No. 1 Morningside (Iowa), and No. 10 Concordia (Mich.) at No. 2 Marian (Ind.).
What Went Wrong
In dropping back-to-back games for just the third time since joining the Frontier, a few things have stood out for the Raiders. At the forefront is an offense that was forced to punt nine times in a 34-21 loss at Rocky — more than in any game since the 2015 national championship — and was shut down on 11 consecutive drives in last week’s 27-17 loss to Eastern Oregon. Over their last two games, the Raiders have totaled 107 combined rushing yards for an average of 1.8 yards per carry, thrown four interceptions and allowed 11 sacks; through the first four games, they averaged 232 rushing yards on 5.2 per carry, threw two interceptions and allowed three sacks. For the most part, the defense has held up, though it forced one turnover in the losses after coming up with nine combined takeaways in the wins.
Since joining the Frontier in 2012, the Raiders are 17-1 in road games against teams with losing records. The exception was their loss at College of Idaho in 2016.
SOU still tops the NAIA at 4.5 sacks per game, and two by Sean Rogers last week moved him up to No. 2 on SOU’s career list with 29 . He’s now 8 away from the record held by Jack Childress (1979-82) and has seven this season, the 10th-highest total in the NAIA. Tyson Cooper has seven tackles for losses and the fourth-highest tackles average (8.0) in the Frontier.
EOU became the second team this season to keep Rey Vega out of the end zone. He remains at No. 5 on SOU’s career rushing TD list (23) and needs three more to become the seventh Raider with 30 total. On the Frontier leaderboard, he’s No. 3 in rushing yards per game (77.2).
Parker Randle has pulled in 10 catches for 123 yards over the last two weeks. Through the first four, he had four for 27.
Coming off an injury, 6-foot-6 junior receiver Jordan Suell is expected to suit up Saturday for the first time this season. Last year, he led the team with nine reception TDs and had 863 total receiving yards. He also caught TD passes against the Yotes the last three times he faced them.
The Raiders also lost two regular-season games before making runs to the national title games in 2014 and ‘15. But in 2014, they lost their second game in the regular-season finale, and in ‘15, they lost their second in the penultimate regular-season game. After starting 2-2 in 2012, they finished with six consecutive wins to advance to the postseason.
About College Of Idaho
Like last year — when they started 1-4 and won five of their last six — the Yotes are heating up a little too late. This year they were picked to finish third in the Frontier but started 0-5, though their losses to SOU, EOU and Rocky were decided by a combined 11 points.
Last week’s win in the snow at Montana Tech, clinched on Peterson’s eight-yard TD rush in overtime, was the Yotes’ sixth-ever against a Top 25 team. They’ve enjoyed one three-game winning streak since bringing back their program.
Peterson has rushed for 100-plus yards three times against SOU and in the first matchup this year netted 44 while completing 10-of-18 passes for 114 yards. On the season, he’s rushed for eight TDs and completed 54 percent of his passes for 140 yards per game, nine TDs and nine interceptions.
The Yotes run on more than half of their plays from scrimmage and post 4.1 yards per carry. On the other side of the ball, they’re giving up 4.7 yards per rush, and their overall average of 6.1 yards allowed per play is the second-worst in the Frontier.
The Yotes defense has generated nine turnovers. Forrest Rivers leads the team in tackles (55) and tackles for losses (8).