ASHLAND — A Frontier Conference co-championship and possibly a berth in the NAIA Football Championship Series will be on the line for the Southern Oregon football team Saturday when the 12th-ranked Raiders host seventh-ranked Montana Tech in what promises to be a high-scoring, high-intensity regular-season finale at Raider Stadium.
The Raiders (7-2 Frontier, 7-2 overall) need a win to clinch a share of the conference championship and secure a spot in the NAIA's 16-team playoff bracket. A loss to the Diggers (8-2, 8-2), who have won eight games in a row, will give Montana Tech the league title outright and hurt SOU's chances of ending its 10-year playoff drought.
"They know what's at stake," SOU head coach Craig Howard said. "We go into this game with an excitement level that's unprecedented."
The Raiders, who haven't been this close to a playoff berth since advancing to the national quarterfinals in 2002, have won five games in a row since the Diggers pulled out a double-overtime epic in Butte, Mont., on Sept. 29. That back-and-forth touchdownfest, which Montana Tech won 48-45, was the second consecutive game between the two schools that required two overtimes to decide after the Diggers won an almost identical defense-free 50-47 affair in 2011.
"Those guys put us in playoff mode five weeks ago," Howard said. "We've been under the gun since that time and I think it's been good for us. That game against Montana Tech was the turning point of our season."
Montana Tech head coach Chuck Morrell, whose team left Butte by bus Thursday morning, is anticipating another shootout, and it's easy to see why. Southern Oregon wields possibly the most prolific offense in NAIA history, poised to break regular-season records for points per game (55.3), yards per game (652.6) and passing yards per game (460.9). Montana Tech can move the ball, too. The Diggers boast the ninth-ranked passing offense (274.9 per game), rank 20th in total offense (417.6) and are averaging 32.4 points.
In the last head-to-head meeting, the two teams combined for 1,133 yards and 11 touchdowns.
"I think you've got a couple of very powerful offenses that will step on the field," Morrell said, "and there's a lot of playmakers on both squads."
Montana Tech's spread offense is led by quarterback Nick Baker, who's completed 69 percent of his passes for 2,403 yards and 23 touchdowns. SOU found out just how good Baker is in the last meeting, when the 6-foot-1 junior completed 32 of 46 passes for 313 yards and four touchdowns, including a 23-yard strike to James Roberts in double overtime that set up the winning score.
Howard was equally impressed with Tech running back Pat Hansen, a 5-9, 182-pound sophomore. Hansen has rushed for 923 yards and 13 touchdowns, including 179 yards and two TDs against the Raiders.
"He's a durable, fast back and he's got speed," Howard said of Hansen. "He's just a tough kid, and hopefully we'll tackle him a little better this time. We've got to swarm to the football and tackle him with more than one guy — he's that kind of back."
When the Raiders are on offense, quarterback Austin Dodge will be putting the finishing touches on one of the best seasons in NAIA history. He's completed 66 percent of his passes for a mind-boggling 3,839 yards — that's 426.6 per game, on pace to break the all-time record — and 31 touchdowns. He's only been picked off six times and sacked once.
Putting pressure on Dodge could sway the game in the Diggers' favor, but Morrell knows that won't be easy.
"It's a combination of both a very solid offensive line and (Dodge) being able to go through his reads very quickly," Morrell said of Dodge's ability to avoid sacks.
It doesn't hurt that Dodge, who is only a sophomore, has plenty of weapons at his disposal. Senior receivers Cole McKenzie and Patrick Donahue, remarkably, rank first and second in the nation in yards receiving with a combined 2,362 yards — 1,215 for McKenzie; 1,147 for Donahue. Also, SOU running back Manny Barragan has rushed for 854 yards and 10 touchdowns, providing the Raiders a nice ground attack that many pass-happy teams lack.
"It's not just a one-man show — it's not just the Austin Dodge show," Howard said.
"It's obviously easier said than done, preventing them from getting one-play easy scores and making them work," he said. "You're not going to go in there and completely shut them down, but you have to limit the damage that they can inflict as much as possible."