The Southern Oregon University football team this week finds itself in a situation it's managed to avoid for nearly two years — preparing for a game which has zero playoff implications.
A week after suffering an agonizing home loss to Eastern Oregon, the unranked Raiders head to Butte, Mont., for a playing-out-the-string game against Montana Tech, another team that had hoped Saturday's game would mean far more than it does.
Things went south in a hurry for SOU.
Only two weeks ago the Raiders were tied with Carroll College atop the Frontier Conference standings and ranked 20th in the NAIA coaches' poll heading into a clash with the then fifth-ranked Fighting Saints. A second straight conference title was within the Raiders' grasp. Two games and 10 turnovers later Southern Oregon (6-4, 6-3 Frontier) has a much more modest goal in mind: go out on a positive note.
"I don't blame players for turnovers, I blame myself," SOU head coach Craig Howard said. "I mean, you coach them not to turn the ball over. We just can't make those critical mistakes. "¦The key is that we continue to love one another and continue to coach hard. Finish the season strong with a win at Montana Tech."
Montana Tech (3-6, 3-6) has its own sob story to overcome. The Orediggers were the preseason co-favorite, along with Carroll, to claim the Frontier Conference championship, but have been out of contention for a while thanks to a four-game losing streak that included a 59-32 loss to SOU. In that Oct. 5 game, Southern Oregon junior quarterback Austin Dodge shattered his own program record by tossing eight touchdown passes, including three apiece to brothers Ryan and Matt Retzlaff.
The Orediggers have split their four games since, but still find themselves in seventh place in the eight-team league.
The Raiders can secure no worse than a tie for second place by earning their third straight win over Montana Tech, and have a shot at second. Also, the Raiders have a host of statistical milestones to shoot for.
Freshman kicker Aldrick Rosas has converted all 53 of his point-after touchdown attempts. Ryan Retzlaff, a junior, ranks fourth (1,139 yards) and Dylan Young, also a junior, fifth (1,115) on Southern Oregon's all-time single-season list for receiving yards. Matt Retzlaff, a redshirt freshman, has 15 touchdown receptions, three off the program record Cole McKenzie set last season.
Dodge continues to add to his program record for touchdown passes in a season (45 and counting, tops in the nation) and is 45 completions away from matching his single-season record of 359, set in 2012.
Montana Tech will likely employ the same strategy adopted by most of SOU's opponents — play keep-away from the Raiders and their lightning-quick spread offense by running the ball effectively, eating the clock and forcing as many three-and-outs as possible.
That's easier said than done — the Raiders rank first nationally in yards per game (599) and second in points (48.8) — but the Orediggers could challenge SOU if sophomore quarterback Herman Tapley goes off. Tapley, a first-year starter, is throwing for 218 yards a game and leads a passing offense that ranks 14th in the nation. Tapley went off against the Raiders, completing 37 of 59 passes for 383 yards and three touchdowns.
Montana Tech's ability to rush the passer may also come into play Saturday. The Orediggers average 3.4 sacks per game and rank fifth in the country in total sacks. Dodge, whose drop-back bombs rank as one of the nation's most deadly offensive weapons, rarely takes a sack. As a team, SOU has taken only 12 sacks on 496 pass attempts, 476 by Dodge.