Visiting school ranked no. 11
By SOU Sports Information
ASHLAND – The Frontier Conference is sending its best to Raider Stadium this fall. There may be none better at the moment than Montana Tech, Southern Oregon’s guest Saturday for a 1 p.m. kickoff.
Three FC teams are among the top-12 in this week’s latest NAIA coaches’ poll, and each of them will be in Ashland over the course of the next seven weekends. The Diggers (3-1 overall, 2-1 FC) stand at No. 11 and are winners of three straight games – a streak bookended by upsets of NCAA Division II squad Central Washington and then-No. 7 College of Idaho – since opening with a two-point loss to Carroll (Mont.) in a nonconference counter. Dating back to last season, the Raiders (1-2, 0-1) have dropped five consecutive FC contests, the last four of which have been decided by seven or fewer points.
HEAD-TO-HEAD: The Diggers are 10-7 in the all-time series against SOU, which dates back to 2007, and 8-6 in FC matchups with an active five-game winning streak. High stakes have cultivated an often-contentious rivalry since they became conference foes: the Raiders forced the Diggers to share the Frontier title with them by blowing them out in the 2012 regular-season finale, Tech clinched titles on the SOU’s home field in 2015 and 2016, and the Raiders capped an unbeaten regular season on Tech’s home field in 2017. The Diggers won last year’s meeting 45-21 in Butte, spoiling freshman running back Gunner Yates’ 212-yard day as he left a one-score game due to injury in the third quarter. The Diggers are 5-3 at Raider Stadium, visiting most recently for a 34-14 victory in 2021. This will mark the fifth time in six trips that they’ve brought a top-25 ranking.
LAST TIME OUT: Montana Western served the Raiders a gut-punch in their FC opener last Saturday in Dillon, rallying back for a 24-23 win with two unanswered fourth-quarter touchdowns. Freshman receiver Eli Nourse scored both, including the go-ahead TD with 42 seconds remaining to cap a 14-play, 94-yard drive, and finished with 13 receptions for 169 yards – his third 100-yard outing of the young season. The Raiders kept UMW (which came in averaging 40 points) at bay for most of the afternoon, but after scoring on four of their first five drives came up empty on their last four. SOU quarterback Matt Struck completed 20-of-32 passes for 238 yards, and three of those completions spanning 57 yards set up Brian Batres for a potential game-winning field goal with four seconds left. From 49 yards deep, Batres’ ball had plenty of carry but flew wide right as time expired. A make would have been SOU’s first from 49-plus yards in 15 years.
- Matt Struck is completing 70 percent of his pass attempts (47-of-67), up from 51 percent over his first two seasons (seven total outings) with the Raiders. He played only the first halves of SOU’s first two games before going the distance at UMW and is averaging 128.3 yards per half.
- The Raiders are using size to their advantage in the passing game, looking most frequently to 6-foot-5 receiver Sawyer Cleveland (14 receptions, 150 yards) and 6-6 tight end Jackson Clemmer (10 receptions, 168 yards, 2 TDs). Three players on the roster have registered 100-yard receiving games in their careers: Cleveland (1), Adrik Lamar (2) and Moku Noa (1).
- Defensive end Noah Turnbull recorded two sacks last week, giving him a team-high three this season and nine in his career. Alejandro Sanchez, the other starting end, recorded one in each of the last two weeks to bring his career total to 14 – three away from entering the top-eight on SOU’s all-time list.
- Spencer Kuffel is among five FC players with two interceptions. He collected both against Willamette, becoming the ninth Raider in the FC era to snag two in a game.
- Running back Avery McCuaig kept up his consistent play with 63 yards and a touchdown on 19 rushes at UMW. The senior is averaging 4.3 yards per attempt and has scored all four of his TDs over the last two weeks, putting him at No. 3 on the FC’s rushing TD leaderboard. Over two seasons at SOU, he has rushed for 48-plus yards all five games in which he’s gotten at least 10 touches.
- For the third time in the last 10 years, the Raider offensive line has prevented SOU quarterbacks from being sacked in back-to-back games. The last time they did so in three straight was 2012, when opponents totaled five sacks over the entire 12-game season.
- Colton Samis’ punting average of 38.3 yards ranks No. 21 in the NAIA. Last week he posted a season-long of 57 yards and stuck two punt inside UMW’s 20-yard line.
- Brian Batres has nailed 4-of-5 field goal attempts an all 10 of his extra-point tries. His 48-yarder at College of Idaho matched the sixth longest in SOU history.
MORE ON TECH:
- The Diggers’ current No. 11 ranking is their highest since 2017. They’re seeking their first national postseason berth since 2016, which was also the year of their last FC title.
- Behind junior quarterback Blake Thelen, they’re averaging the third-most passing yards per attempt (11.2) in the NAIA. Thelen, an All-Frontier second team selection in 2022, is posting 280.5 passing yards per attempt on 62-percent accuracy, having accumulated 10 passing TDs compared to two interceptions. His All-Frontier receiver, Kyle Torgerson, has yet to appear this season, but Wyatt Alexander is picking up the slack with 114.5 yards per game and four TDs, averaging 25.4 per reception.
- Senior running back Blake Counts, a three-time all-conference performer, is responsible for opening up the passing game with 2,827 career rushing yards and 22 rushing TDs to his name. He has taken the ball 64 times for 6.5 yards per rush and 103.8 per game this season, and netted 120 last year against SOU.
- Defensively, linebacker Cole Wyant is averaging 9.5 tackles per game and has forced two fumbles, and Major Niccum owns two interceptions. The Diggers have generated five takeaways and four sacks, but they’re giving up over 430 yards per game.
- Dating back to last season, they’ve won five of their last six road games.
THIS CLOSE: The Raiders are 62-39 in conference play as members of the Frontier (2012-present), but they’re in the midst of a five-game FC losing streak after last week’s setback at UMW. Four of those games have been against teams either among the Top 25 or receiving votes. How thin are the margins keeping them from getting over the hump? A rundown:
- 10/22/22 – No. 24 Montana Tech 45, SOU 21: Yates produces the Raiders’ first 200-yard rushing game in eight years, and his 70-yard TD cuts their deficit to 28-21 in the third quarter. He leaves with an injury as the Raiders go for the tie on their next drive, though, and Tech scores the last 17 points of the game.
- 10/29/22 – No. 12 College of Idaho 28, SOU 24: The Raiders intercept three passes in the first half and break a tie on a 30-yard field goal with three minutes remaining, positioning themselves to knock off the defending FC champs on the road. The Yotes respond with an 80-yard drive, rushing in the game-winning TD with 20 seconds left.
- 11/05/22 – No. 23 Carroll 24, SOU 17: The Raiders rally back from a 14-point deficit to tie the game in the fourth quarter. After the Saints take the lead with seven minutes left, SOU fumbles away its final drive.
- 11/12/22 – Eastern Oregon 21, SOU 14: The Raiders take a 14-0 lead five minutes into the game but are shut out the rest of the day, surrendering the go-ahead TD in the fourth before getting stopped at EOU’s 2-yard line in the final minute.
- 09/23/23 – (RV) Montana Western 24, SOU 23: The Raiders’ 23-12 lead slips away and they are denied their first road victory against a team with a winning record since 2018.
HOME HISTORY: SOU is 108-68 all-time at Raider Stadium and won its only home game this season, 49-7 against Willamette. The Raiders are 35-15 against FC teams as the designated home team, including an 11-11 mark against Top 25 opponents. They’ve lost four in a row against ranked squads in Ashland, defeating one most recently Oct. 2, 2021 against No. 18 Eastern Oregon. The last time they beat a top-11 team at Raider Stadium was in the first round of the 2015 NAIA Championship Series, when they thumped No. 10 Kansas Wesleyan 52-8.
AROUND THE FRONTIER: Tech and Carroll are the only teams left with perfect FC records at 2-0, and the Saints are the last overall unbeaten team in the conference at 4-0. They’re up one spot to No. 9 in the NAIA coaches’ poll after last week’s win over Arizona Christian and have two soft opponents coming up, playing MSU-Northern and Eastern Oregon back-to-back. Tech is up four spots to No. 11 on the strength of its 44-35 win at College of Idaho, and C of I is consequently down five to No. 12. Montana Western, which is the last team out of the Top 25, is off this week before visiting Tech on Oct. 7.