The Southern Oregon University football team was still enduring the long bus ride home from its season-opening road trip to Montana Tech when the preparation for this week's opponent, Portland State, had begun.
No time to dwell on the past, explains Raiders' head coach Craig Howard. And considering what happened in Butte, Mont., perhaps it's better that way.
The Raiders stormed back late in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 points in the last three minutes of regulation to force overtime, only to watch their shot at a dramatic road win slip away when Pat Hansen broke loose for a 25-yard touchdown run on Montana Tech's first play from scrimmage in double OT.
"I think there was that initial shock," Howard said. "It was a heartbreaking way to lose. You come from behind and you see it there. It's in your hands, you taste it. And then it's taken away. The players were heartbroken, but on that ride home they started thinking, 'Gosh, we did some good things.' It wasn't all doom and gloom."
Indeed, there were plenty of positives for Southern Oregon to latch onto:
- The Raiders new-look offense, the no-huddle spread, exploded out of the gate with a spectacular debut. Operating as fast as Howard advertised, the Raiders piled up 557 yards of total offense, five touchdowns and 30 first downs. And they did it with a balanced attack — 316 passing yards and 241 rushing.
- SOU quarterback Mike McDonald looked like his old self in his first game since being carted off the field with a broken leg 11 months ago. He scrambled around to extend plays, made quick reads, unloaded some gorgeous passes and even busted off a 31-yard run. And most importantly, despite briefly coming out after having the wind knocked out of him late in the third quarter, McDonald left big sky country the way he arrived — with a clean bill of health.
- SOU kicker Tyler Crowley hit all four of his field-goal attempts and was money under pressure. He nailed a 39-yarder with 31 seconds to go in regulation — his second 39-yard kick of the game — to force overtime, and also booted home a high-anxiety extra point in overtime to force the second OT.
But all that success on the offensive side of the ball couldn't make up for SOU's overmatched defense. Simply put, Montana Tech did whatever it wanted to, pretty much whenever it wanted to do it.
The Diggers scored touchdowns on three of their first five possessions, gained 518 yards of total offense and converted 13 of 23 third downs and 2 of 2 fourth downs.
SOU did have a few highlights — Austin Cantrell's second-quarter interception set up a Raiders' touchdown, and Justin Akau's leaping pick late in the fourth quarter set up Crowley's game-tying field goal.
But for most of the game, the Raiders could not stop the Diggers.
"From a fan's point of view, 50-47, it's an exciting game," Howard said, "but we've got to shore up our defense. We didn't tackle as well as we needed to, we didn't get off blocks as well as we needed to."
Howard said that the pace of the game — Montana Tech also employed plenty of no-huddle — combined with SOU's inexperience also contributed to SOU's defensive demise.
"Early in the season, in hot August games, you want to rotate defensive linemen," he said, "and we weren't able to do that because we don't have a lot of depth there.
"And some of it may be personnel, where we might need to make some changes."
Whatever the problem, it will be hard to get a read on the Raiders' capacity for correction this weekend. Portland State is a NCAA Division I-FCS team, which means it will have a huge advantage in the number of scholarship players on the field — FCS football teams are allowed 63 full-ride scholarships, while NAIA teams max out at 24 (although SOU has far fewer than that) — and thus a huge advantage in both size and speed all over the field.
That doesn't necessarily mean that the Vikings, who will be playing their season opener at Jeld-Wen Field, will demolish the Raiders in the money game. Two years ago, the matchup was borderline respectable. Portland State scored on its first two possessions less than seven minutes into the game, but was held to a field goal the rest of the half and ended up winning 34-10.
Can the Raiders make it more competitive this time around? Howard says the goal isn't to be competitive, it's to pull off the shocker.
"We're going to do everything we can to win the game," he said. "We've put together a great game plan and we'll coach to win the football game. I believe in respecting everyone you play and fear no one, and I'm glad we're playing Portland State. It's a great test for our team."
Reach Tidings sports editor Joe Zavala at 541-776-4469 and firstname.lastname@example.org.