ASHLAND — Seven games into their first season as a member of the Frontier Conference, the Southern Oregon University Raiders have become that annoying new neighbor who doesn't wipe his feet before tromping through every room in the house, raiding the refrigerator and switching the TV station without asking.
Yes, Southern Oregon has made itself quite comfortable in its new league home. Running a no-huddle spread offense that's become the bane of defensive coordinators everywhere, the Raiders have simply toyed with opposing defenses while racking up yards and points that look more like a video game summary than real life stats. Heading into Saturday's monster clash with No. 6 Carroll — a tilt that naia.org has dubbed the "Game of the Week" — the No. 19 Raiders (5-2) are gaining an average of 644.6 yards per game, including 438 through the air, and are scoring 54.7 points per game. That puts SOU on pace to shatter the nation's all-time single-season records in the first two categories and tie a scoring record which was set by Florida A&M in 1961.
But for all the flashy numbers on SOU's resume, it's another, less heralded statistic that may best explain what's under the hood of the Raiders' incredible offensive machine: One. That's how many times SOU starting quarterback Austin Dodge has been sacked — impressive for a team heading into Week 8, mind-boggling when you consider that Dodge has thrown 309 passes.
Oh, and that one sack, points out offensive line coach Chris Fisk, came on a broken running play.
"There are two things," said Fisk, when asked to explain SOU's ability to negate opposing pass rushes. "One, we're really good at pass protection. And, our quarterback throws the ball on time and gets the ball out of his hand, which eliminates the opportunity to get sacks most of the time. And then also, we get a lot of basic defensive looks because of the speed that we go at, because (opposing defenses) don't have time to call a ton of blitzes and get into the things that D coordinators would like to get into."
The Raiders do indeed push the pace on offense, going as fast as the referees allow, but Fisk, in his second year at SOU after a nine-year stint at the University of Mary, is also being modest. Dodge often gets rid of the ball quick on swing passes, bubble screens or quick slants, but his most potent weapon, and arguably the Raiders' most effective, is his ability to simply drop back and deliver a well-placed bomb. To do that, he needs time, lots of it. Time to drop back, time to wait for his receiver to gain separation, and finally time, and space, to step into a throw that must travel 40 to 50 yards through the air.
But time is something Dodge is almost always afforded, thanks to an O-line that's mostly overpowered the competition despite starting the season with only one returning starter. Center Ronald Rylance, left tackle Jake Sullivan, left guard Max Proudfit, right guard Zach Urrutia, right tackle Drew Gibson and backup right guard Dylan Bratlie, who started four games while Urrutia recovered from an injury, have quickly turned a position that was considered a question mark before the season into a resounding exclamation point.
"Knowing the work that we put in and the amount of hours in meetings and film that we spend in the offseason, I expected this," said Urrutia, the lone senior who hails from Maxwell, Calif.
All that hard work has paid off in the form of sound technique and excellent fitness, added Fisk, who ran a similar style of offense as the offensive coordinator at Mary, a NCAA Division II school. Add that to the fact that the Raiders usually have a size advantage up front — those six linemen stand, on average, 6-foot-2 and weigh 293 pounds — and you have a recipe for offensive success.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that SOU employs a style of play that tends to wear down defensive linemen. It's not a walk in the park for 300-pound offensive linemen, either, but the Raiders are used to it. In fact, as Gibson, a North Medford High graduate, pointed out, SOU's pace in practice makes its actual game speed look slow by comparison because in practice there are no referees to wait for. Still, that game pace is fast enough to floor many opponents who haven't faced a team like the Raiders.
"The first game of the year (against Montana Western), the D-line we were going against was throwing up on the field," Urrutia said, "so that'll make your job easier blocking."
The Raiders scored 54 against Montana Western in that season-opener, then 76 in the rematch last Saturday. They ran 104 plays in Saturday's blowout. That's a lot of squatting, pushing and hustling up to the line for the largest men on the field, but it's a challenge they've been equipped to handle.
"The biggest challenge (in a no-huddle offense) is that you don't let the big guys slow the offense down," Fisk said, "because the head coach, the O-coordinator don't like that. So we've got to find ways to streamline our communication up front so that our blocking schemes are set and our pass protections are set."
Figuring out those assignments and making sure everybody on the line knows the plan is the game within a game that plays out 150 to 200 times a day. For the Raiders, that's all handled in those precious few moments after the ball is set but before it's snapped, with Rylance, as the center, acting as the point man for setting all the protections.
One mistake, and it could spell doom for an offense — a quarterback sack, a fumble, a rushed pass that's intercepted. But for the Raiders, missed assignments are rare.
"We all have separate calls that we make depending on how the defense lines up, and we communicate with each other," said Gibson, describing the controlled chaos that is SOU's pre-play preparation. "And that's really one of the biggest parts of our success, communicating with one another so one person knows what the other person is doing."
The Raiders' offensive linemen expect to face their stiffest challenge yet Saturday afternoon against the Saints (6-1), who will bring to Raider Stadium — along with an unrivaled tradition of recent NAIA success that includes six national championships in the last 10 years — one of the nation's best defensive units. Carroll ranks second in the nation in sacks (27), fifth in total defense per game (253.3 yards allowed) and also ranks in the top 10 in opponent first downs, rushing defense and opponent third-down conversion percentage.
"I believe in the offense and I know what we're capable of doing, even against Carroll," Gibson said. "This team (Carroll) is held up high, but I think if everybody does what they're supposed to do we're definitely capable of making it just like any of our other games. "… It would be a huge win for us, and I think it would telegraph what our program is all about."
Joe Zavala can be reached at email@example.com