ASHLAND — Fortunately, the Southern Oregon University football team has already learned not to take any win for granted. Otherwise the circumstances of today's Frontier Conference game at Dickinson State (N.D.) might present some temptation.
The Bluehawks (0-4 overall, 0-4 conference) took a 45-7 thumping in Ashland last year on their way to a last-place finish, and are doing their part to vindicate the conference coaches' preseason prediction that they would occupy the bottom of the standings again. They have just six wins since reaching the NAIA playoffs in 2010.
That's exactly how the Raiders (1-3, 1-2) would prefer to keep it as they try to lift their conference record back up to the .500 mark before getting four of their next five games at Raider Stadium.
Nearly pulling off an upset at Sacramento State and pouring on the second-most points in school history against Eastern Oregon in last week's 73-20 win have them believing there is time and talent enough to make another run at the postseason after all.
Quarterback Austin Dodge — a junior who on Monday was named the Frontier Conference's offensive player of the week for the fourth time — has the Raiders back at third in the NAIA in scoring (48.3 points), second in pass offense (369.5 yards) and fourth in total offense (563.8 yards). At Eastern he fired a career-high six touchdown passes, bringing his total to 71 in 24 career starts.
"It was frustrating to start the season the way we did, but we took a lot of good things out of those losses and we're getting back to the point where we know we can compete with anybody," Dodge said. "Dickinson had a rough start like us and probably feels the same way, and they're a well-coached team so we're definitely taking them seriously."
Kickoff is set for noon at the 2,100-seat Frank Whitney Stadium.
Hank Biesiot, Dickinson's 38th-year head coach, is from an old school and so is his offense. The Bluehawks' split-back offensive formation — commonly known as the old pro form — is producing 282 yards per game this year, which is last in the Frontier. They've attempted 95 passes compared to SOU's 202.
"It's the weird week where we don't see a spread (offense), no-huddle team, which is something we're not used to in this conference," Raiders defensive coordinator Berk Brown said. "It all starts with their offensive line and running backs, which I think are the strengths of their team. They're a bunch of big, tough guys who come off the ball and hit you in the mouth, so we've gotta be extremely physical up front and extremely disciplined with our defensive backs."
Dickinson has two smaller backs in juniors Jesse Carney and Myron Moore capable of disappearing behind a big line. Carney averages 5.1 yards per carry and 72 per game while Moore is posting 3.6 and 52.5. The Bluehawks' 6-foot-5 freshman quarterback, Kaler Ray, has completed just 29 of his 69 pass attempts, averaging 115.3 yards per game.
The DSU defense has been equally shaky while allowing 47 points and 505.8 yards per game, both seventh-worst in the conference. The unit, which has forced six turnovers, is led by safety Brady Harkless' 36 tackles.
Southern Oregon raced to a 21-0 lead over DSU less than five minutes into last year's Sept. 22 contest. That was the schools' first-ever meeting and this will be their last in Frontier play, as Dickinson is set to join the North Star Conference, a new circuit made up of six schools in North and South Dakota, in 2014.
Against Eastern Oregon, brothers Matt and Ryan Retzlaff played a big part in making sure the Raiders' first win had no chance of going down to the wire.
Matt, a redshirt-freshman receiver, caught 10 balls for 141 yards and scored five touchdowns, four of which were via reception to tie a school record. Ryan, a sophomore, had eight catches for 112 yards and a score.
Matt leads the nation in scoring with 12 touchdowns and has pulled in 26 catches for 70.5 yards per game. Ryan's 30 catches are tied for the most in the NAIA and he's posting 90.8 yards. Along with Dylan Young, who averages 129.7 receiving yards, the Raiders have three of the nation's top nine leaders in catches.
On the ground, sophomore tailback Zach Marshall rushed 16 times for 126 yards last week, putting him in triple digits for the second time this year a week after freshman Melvin Mason went for 236 yards.
"I think our offense and defense are starting to play off each other more," Dodge said. "When our defense has a good stand, our offense is capitalizing. We're closer to one unit now."
The defense was especially sharp after the first quarter at Eastern, allowing just six points in the final three quarters. Austin Smith had a team-high 11 tackles, making him one of nine Raiders with more than 20 total tackles this season. Mylz Blake, a redshirt-freshman linebacker, leads with 34.
"I think our guys are buying into what we want from our defense, which is to have an attacking, swarming mindset," Brown said. "The biggest turn was at Sacramento State. We got a couple big stops against an (NCAA) Division I offense and since that point we've played with more confidence."