ashland.news
May 26, 2024

Football: SOU, KGU set for Saturday’s Mills Bowl

Southern Oregon will meet Kwansei Gakuin University for the first time since 1988 in the fourth installment of the Mills Bowl. Ashland Daily Photo by Al Case
May 3, 2024

Raiders meet Japanese powerhouse for first time since 1988 in fourth installment of football game

SOU Sports Information

ASHLAND — The enthusiasm around the Southern Oregon football team was palpable last fall when the Raiders ended head coach Berk Brown’s initial campaign by taking five of their last six games, completing their first winning season since 2018 at 6-4.

The next phase begins with an opportunity as unique as any team in the country will get this spring: a matchup with Kwansei Gakuin University, Japan’s national collegiate powerhouse, set for 6 p.m. Saturday, May 4, at Raider Stadium.

The Raiders and Fighters will meet for the first time since 1988 in the fourth installment of the Mills Bowl, named for the late head coach Chuck Mills, a highly-influential figure on both sides of the affair.

“I want our guys to have perspective on how cool it is that we not only get to play another team, but more importantly we get to learn from another culture about how they prepare and do things on the field,” Brown said. “We’re going to take it all in and make sure it’s a great experience for everyone, but when Saturday rolls around we’re here to play a really good football team.”

MILLS BOWL HISTORY: An SOU Sports Hall-of-Famer and the Raiders’ head coach from 1980-88, Chuck Mills’ influence in Japan was such that the country’s Heisman Trophy equivalent is named the Mills Trophy.

Before landing in Ashland, he took his Utah State and Wake Forest teams to play exhibitions in Japan during the 1970s and began bringing Japanese coaches onto his staffs in the United States. (Hideaki Toriuchi, a legendary head coach who led KGU to 12 championships from 1992-2019, was an assistant at Southern Oregon from 1982-84.)

SOU made its first visit to KGU on Dec. 22, 1985, and won 49-24. On Aug. 28, 1986, KGU became the first Japanese team to play on American soil in a 21-17 SOU victory at Raider Stadium. The final game of the initial series went to the Fighters: a 27-9 decision in Osaka on Jan. 10, 1988.

The relationship laid the groundwork for Ashland High’s ongoing exchange known as the Pacific Rim Bowl, which has pitted AHS against a Japanese all-star team 17 times since 1988.

The NAIA does not technically have football exhibitions, but because KGU is an international opponent, Saturday’s game will be a non-counter in terms of statistics and win-loss records.

BROWN ON KGU: The Fighters captured their sixth consecutive national championship in December. Since the formation of their team in 1941, they’ve brought their record championship total to 34. They arrived in Ashland late Wednesday night, and on Thursday joined SOU on the field for a combined practice.

Said Brown: “All the rules are the same, but there is a cultural difference in the game and they’re unconventional in ways we’re not used to facing. What you’ll see is a team that plays extremely hard and with a great deal of pride. It’ll be interesting to find out how the styles collide Saturday, and I think whichever team has to adapt to the other’s style of play more is probably going to end up on the losing side.”

Brown noted the elusiveness of Fighters quarterback Shuta Hoshino, and the explosiveness of their running back, Shoei Itami, who has the benefit of an offensive line stocked with returning starters. Their defense, like SOU’s, has more holes to fill after last season, but he believes their multiple fronts and blitzes will keep the Raiders guessing.

SOU SPRING GLANCE: Considering the finish to the fall (highlighted by an upset of eventual NAIA semifinalist College of Idaho in the Frontier finale) and what they return, the Raiders have raised expectations for 2024. Seventy-two players are back from last year’s roster — including eight starters on offense and six on defense — as are 11 of 12 coaches from Brown’s revamped staff. They’re expected to be without a few key players Saturday and Brown plans to go deeper on his roster than usual for parts of the game.

“The continuity is huge, obviously with the players, but also because it’s really hard to keep a coaching staff together in college football, and hearing the same things consistently makes a huge difference,” Brown said. “We’re lightyears ahead of where we were a year ago and I think we’re the only team in the country that gets to play another team this spring, so it’s a great opportunity to get our young guys into a prep week before jumping into the fall. We’ll see guys who haven’t competed on Saturdays yet and find out who might be ready to step into roles going forward.”

QUICK HITS:

— The full return of running back Gunner Yates is one of the biggest storylines for SOU entering 2024. Yates, the son of SOU three-time All-American Griff Yates (1997-99), was among the Frontier’s leaders in rushing touchdowns (8) and yards per carry (6.1) as a true freshman in 2022. Due to injury, he appeared in just two games while retaining his redshirt last season but still averaged 5.4 yards on 16 carries and made five receptions for 86 yards in limited time. He’ll take over for Avery McCuaig, who led the conference in both rushing TD and yards per game in 2023.

— In January, safety Spencer Kuffel became the fifth Academic All-American in team history. He was also named to the All-Frontier first team after leading the FC with six interceptions (tied for third on the NAIA leaderboard) and two interception returns for TDs. As a junior, Kuffel will join linebacker Ty Glumbik as SOU’s only three-year starters on defense.

— Under first-year coordinator Tyler Stinn, the Raiders ranked 22nd in the NAIA with an average of 19.0 points allowed and led all teams in Frontier play at 17.6. Pressure on the line was a big reason why: They posted 3.4 sacks per game, sitting at No. 5 on the national leaderboard after ranking 52nd in that category a year earlier. They’re tasked with replacing the Frontier Defensive Player of the Year, defensive end Noah Turnbull.

— Entering his senior season, quarterback Blake Asciutto is No. 7 on SOU’s all-time TD passes list with 37. He completed 58% of his passes last season and, over his final five starts, averaged 221 yards with 11 TDs and four interceptions. Asciutto is expected to be unavailable Saturday, leaving redshirt-freshman Daschel Smith as the starter. During his senior season at South Salem High, Smith completed 69% of his pass attempts for 2,860 yards and 33 touchdowns.

— SOU returns its top-five targets in terms of receptions and reception yardage from a year ago, a group headed by two All-Frontier selections, tight end Jackson Clemmer (25 receptions, 434 yards, 8 TDS) and receiver Sawyer Cleveland (40 receptions, 527 yards, 3 TDs). Two newcomers to watch will also factor into the passing game: Brandon Barthel, who redshirted last year at Valparaiso (Ind.) after two seasons at Feather River C.C. (Calif.), and James Mintmier, a Minot State (N.D.) transfer formerly of Sierra C.C. (Calif.).

For more on Southern Oregon University Raider athletics, go to souraiders.com.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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