Saturday will mark just the halfway point of the regular season, but the Frontier Conference is turning into a three-horse race in a hurry. Seeking its fifth straight win, ninth-ranked Southern Oregon will be presented with the opportunity take another out of focus at Raider Stadium.
The Raiders (4-0 overall, 4-0 FC) will host the Rocky Mountain (Mont.) Battlin' Bears (3-2, 3-1) for a 1 p.m. kickoff in an attempt to create more distance between themselves, fifth-ranked Montana Tech (4-0) and everyone else. If SOU can take care of Rocky and Montana Tech does the same to Montana Western, they'll be the only teams left in the conference with fewer than three losses.
SOU has been thoroughly dominant during the streak, winning by an average of 17.8 points, and hasn't trailed since the first quarter of its first game. The Bears, however, will bring an offense that presents the most interesting if not the most challenging matchup to date: They lead the conference in rushing yards per game, while SOU's run defense is the stingiest; they allow fewer sacks than all but four teams in the NAIA, while SOU has generated more than all but one.
• The Raiders are 6-1 against the Bears with a 4-1 mark in Frontier play in a series that started in 2001. The Bears got their only win by a score of 52-30 in 2012, though a year later they took a 35-30 decision in a game played at Grants Pass High only to give it back a few weeks later due to the use of an ineligible player.
• The trip will be Rocky's third to Raider Stadium, the last being a 45-28 SOU win on Nov. 1, 2014.
• Last year's matchup in Billings, a 35-34 SOU win, was the wildest of the bunch. The Raiders trailed 34-14 nearing the end of the third quarter, but went ahead using three touchdown plays that covered a combined 190 yards – Sean Tow's 51-yard TD rush in the third quarter, and Bronsen Ader TD catches of 73 and 66 yards in the fourth. It made the Raiders 4-1 in the Frontier, though they went on to lose four of their next five. For the Bears, who entered the game at 3-1, the game was the start of a stretch in which they dropped five of six.
Home History: After last week's 35-14 thumping of Carroll (Mont.), which was the Raiders' seventh home-opening win in a row, SOU is 94-58 in the program's history at Raider Stadium. That includes a 17-5 mark at home in Frontier action, and an 11-1 mark against unranked Frontier opponents – the only kind SOU is likely to see in its three remaining regular-season home contests. The Raiders' average margin of victory in those 11 wins has been 33.7 points.
Lines Drawn: Senior linebacker Isiah Carter, the Frontier's defensive player of the week, was the face of SOU's all-around defensive gouging of Carroll last week for a unit that is shaping up to be one of the Raiders' best in recent memory, and he was voted the Frontier's defensive player of the week as a result. Carter, an all-conference performer and fourth-year starter, recorded three of the team's seven sacks as the Raiders shut out the Saints through the first half. Carter went all of last year without a sack but is up to four this season, and seven total tackles gave him 265 for his career, moving him into seventh place on SOU's all-time list.
As a whole, the Raider defense has conceded just 1,307 yards (327 per game), making this the best four-game stretch since the team joined the Frontier in 2012. They're giving up 3.1 yards per carry; their best mark in the last decade is 3.9. And they're up to 18 sacks — compared to three through four games last year, eight in 2015, 11 in '14, seven in '13, and 10 in '12. If they can hold Rocky under 30 points, it'd be the first time they've done so to five opponents in a row since 2003.
• Speaking of sacks, freshman defensive lineman Tre Holmes added another against Carroll and ranks seventh in the NAIA at 1.1 per game. Armando Gauger is up to three this season, and his 6 ½ since the start of last year is the highest total for any Raider in that stretch.
• Another outstanding day for linebacker Devvon Gage consisted of 15 tackles, a sack, two hurries and a forced fumble. Through 27 career games, the junior owns 227 tackles. The SOU career record, held by Jack Childress, is 376.
• After taking a 35-0 lead into the break last week, the Raiders have outscored opponents 103-35 in the first half this season. In the second, they're up 56-53.
• Tanner Trosin's run without an interception in conference play ended at 221 clean attempts, but he still managed another All-America-caliber outing against the Saints. He passed for 287 yards in the first half — a week after totaling 290 in the first half at Montana Western — and finished 20-for-32 with 333 passing yards, two TD passes and two rushing TDs. He also went over the 5,000-passing-yard mark as a Raider, went over 300 yards passing for his sixth straight start, and now ranks third in the NAIA in total offense per game (386.8). He's connected with 10 different targets two games in a row and this year has completed 13 passes that have gone for 30-plus yards. In 2015, his other full year as a starter, he completed 12 30-plus-yard passes during the entire regular season.
• With 123 receiving yards, Jordan Suell went over the 100-yard mark for the second week in a row and third time in his last five outings. SOU hasn't allowed an opponent to hit 100 receiving yards this year, but has produced a 100-yard receiver in 10 if its last 11 games dating back to 2016.
• Though the Raiders boast the eighth-best passing offense in the nation, they've only attempted one more passing play (144) than rushing plays (143).
Hall Passes: Following a 9 a.m. banquet and induction ceremony in the Rogue River Room, the SOU Sports Hall of Fame class of 2017 will be honored at halftime of Saturday's game. It includes a trio of men's tennis stars – Dick Blacksmith, John Popplewell and Ken Stevenson — known as SOU's "Big Three" from 1963-66, wrestling standout Joe Bold (1974-76), All-American heptathlete Jennifer Harman Adamy (1991-94), and the Raiders' memorable 2001 football team. The 2001 squad was the pearl of SOU Hall-of-Famer Jeff Olson's nine-year tenure as head coach, tying a school record for wins at the time with a mark of 9-2 and ending a 14-year playoff drought. The Raiders reached the national quarterfinals by defeating McKendree (Ill.), 54-10, in the first round of the NAIA Championships Series and wrapped up at No. 5 in the national poll — the team's highest-ever finish at the time. SOU was subsequently voted the Northwest's top small-college team by area sportswriters and sports information directors for the first time.
About Rocky Mountain:
• Second-year head coach Jason Petrino, formerly a defensive coordinator at University of South Dakota, has the Bears off to a 3-1 start in the Frontier for the second straight season. Coming off back-to-back 4-6 campaigns, they're seeking their first trip to the postseason since 2013.
• Last week the Bears turned a 14-7 fourth-quarter lead into a 31-7 rout of The College of Idaho. Two weeks ago, they took their first Frontier loss against Montana Tech, 34-28 — a game they trailed 34-7 in the fourth before rallying and having the ball and midfield as time expired.
• Safety Keenan Fagan and cornerback Terrance William have accounted for seven of the team's nine interceptions. They're joined on the defense by all-conference linebacker Chase Bertelsen, whose 28 tackles rank second on the team to linebacker Billy Williams' 35.
• Junior quarterback Jacob Bakken, an eight-man all-star during his high school days, is completing 60 percent of his passes for 156 yards per game with five TDs and three interceptions in his first season as a full-time starter. Max gray, Branson Mosley and Lucas Overton have each hauled in two receiving TDs apiece, and Rocky's line has only allowed Bakken to be sacked three times.
• Rocky's rushing attack is posting 241.8 yards per game and 5.5 per carry, the top clips in the Frontier. Mason Belby is the go-to back with 83 yards per game, seven per rush and seven TDs, but Sam Sparks adds 60 and Bakken 51 per game.