The Southern Oregon football team returned home from its final road trip of the season two weekends ago knowing that any kind of playoff chances were gone and the program’s lofty goals wouldn’t be completely fulfilled.
Essentially, the last two weeks of the year turned into a playing-for-pride situation and the chance to lock up a winning season.
One week at home down, one final week to go.
The goal was to never have Saturday’s regular-season finale against No. 23-ranked Montana Western be the final game to be played in 2018. This was, in theory, supposed to be the game before the first playoff game. Instead, for the final time this season, the Raiders will walk past the Coach Howard rock, do a pre-game haka and then take the Raider Stadium field against Frontier Conference opposition.
“To me, coming out of the October skid, it’s about ‘Did we respond the right way as a team?’” SOU head coach Charlie Hall said. “You look as a head coach, you look at your team culture, you look to see if you have enough players who have bought in to that process and do they really care about those things. Yes, we have plenty of talent to go out there and get the job done, but are we going to be invested and does it matter.
“With the election that we just had, it’s a little bit of a referendum of really who we are. For them to go out there and show the effort, show the consistency, show the discipline for four quarters, to play that way would really validate what the program is about right now.”
SOU (5-4, 5-4), which has the chance to finish as high as second place in the Frontier with a win Saturday, will honor 20 seniors who will be playing their final collegiate game.
Of those 20, six of them — wide receivers Bronson Ader and Chase Cole, linebacker Devvon Gage, defensive back AJ Cooper, defensive end Sean Rogers and kicker Marcus Montano — were a part of the Southern Oregon team that advanced to the 2015 national championship game as either a true or redshirt freshman.
It’s for that reason why Hall is going to be cherishing this Senior Day a little more.
“I hope for their sake and their teammates for what they’ve done and represented in this program, to go out there and make it that special day where everybody’s on point, on target and doing the right thing,” Hall said. “Obviously, Western’s coming in here disappointed having lost to College of Idaho and pretty much lost their opportunity for postseason play. They’re either coming in here a little disgruntled or coming in here trying to salvage their season.
“We’re home, those players are going to have a lot of their senior families here, it’s going to be an exciting time for them and I really want them to play well to get a win for our seniors.”
It had been six weeks between wins before last Saturday’s 37-21 victory over Montana State-Northern. The four-game skid, the Raiders’ longest losing streak in two years, came to a welcomed end.
And, from Hall’s point of view, it was one where the Raiders were finally back to executing the way he knows his team can.
“We didn’t beat ourselves, for the most part,” Hall said. “There was a little bit of a slow death on the defensive side early on when (Montana-State-Northern) had some long drives. It’s tough to sustain a long drive on offense, and they faltered and turned the ball over. Winning the turnover war is always going to be a chance to get back on the right page because you’re not giving the ball up to anybody.”
With the losing streak now a thing of the past, Hall feels like sophomore quarterback Wyatt Hutchinson has been fully able to snap out of his midseason struggles.
Prior to last Saturday’s win, the last time Hutchinson was on the Raider Stadium turf was the 27-17 loss to Eastern Oregon where he was replaced in the fourth quarter by backup Chase Knutz. Since that game, though, Hutchinson has played some of his best football of the season.
Over the last three games, Hutchinson has thrown six touchdowns — four last weekend alone — and just one interception, while surpassing the 300-yard mark for the second time this season.
“When you put a 6-foot-6 receiver in the mix ...” Hall quipped in reference to Jordan Suell’s return to the lineup after missing six games of the season due to injury. “Whether he’s the target or he brings a lot of attention from the defense, it opens up other people in the process and helps a lot. But, at the same time, I think Wyatt has improved a lot with his accuracy and his deep ball accuracy, his ability to move the ball and move the chains and just getting more comfortable each week.”
Based on how the season began, finishing with a 6-4 record and a winning record might seem like settling for some.
But with more wins one week into November than they had in the entire month of October, closing out the season on a high note is a decent alternative to where things were a few weeks back.
“The offense has been trending in an upward manner and the defense has been struggling a little bit with some personnel changes, some injuries that have forced some guys to go in and play,” Hall said, “so I think that’s something we can hopefully improve this week and get after a Montana Western team that’s probably a little bit wounded. Hopefully we’re over that and ready to treat it like a one-game season for an opportunity at a winning season.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.