ASHLAND — To say that the Southern Oregon defense has struggled to contain Montana Tech running back Pat Hansen would be a major understatement.
In three games against the Raiders, dating back to Craig Howard's first game as SOU's head coach in 2011, Hansen has carried the ball 86 times for 538 yards and seven touchdowns. That's an average of 179 yards a game.
Hansen's heroics have helped the Diggers win two of those three meetings — in fact, he clinched both victories personally with game-winning touchdown runs in overtime. The good news for the Raiders is that in the most recent matchup, on Nov. 10 of last year, SOU overcame Hansen's 162-yard outburst to finally beat the Diggers, 46-28, in a game that the Raiders mostly dominated while running out to a 46-7 lead early in the fourth quarter.
So what will it take for the Raiders (2-3, 2-2 Frontier Conference) to make it two in a row against the Hansen-led Diggers (1-3, 1-3) on Saturday, when Montana Tech pays a visit to Ashland for SOU's second home game of the year and first at Raider Stadium? Howard says the key is to stick to the fundamentals. Then, hang on for dear life.
"He's such a good running back," Howard said. "He runs through tackles — you just gotta be a great tackler. He's tough, he has great vision, great balance and he breaks tackles, so you have to tackle him with more than one man. You need a swarming defense because he'll hurt you if you go one on one with him."
Howard believes doing so is the key to SOU's chances on Saturday.
"He is one of the best backs in America and we need to contain him to win the game," he said.
Another intriguing matchup will take center stage when the Raiders have the ball: Southern Oregon's passing attack, ranked No. 1 in the nation in yards per game (394), against a Montana Tech defense that's ranked fifth nationally against the pass (140 yards per game against).
Southern Oregon junior quarterback Austin Dodge continues to torch opposing secondaries. He's completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,947 yards and 21 touchdowns with four interceptions. The offensive player of the year candidate has managed to overcome the loss of his top four receivers of a year ago by spreading the ball around. Five Raider receivers have at least 16 catches, led by the Retzlaff brothers (Ryan and Matt) from South Medford High. Ryan Retzlaff has 36 catches for 448 yards and four touchdowns; Matt Retzlaff has 32 catches for 362 yards and eight scores.
In one of his finest performances as a Raider last week against Dickinson State, Dodge completed 32 of 39 passes for 460 yards and five touchdowns without an interception.
"We talked to him and talked to the offense about having a masterpiece and he almost was (perfect) last week," Howard said of Dodge. "Early in the season we struggled because we weren't on the same page, but now the boys have continued to work and develop and we're hitting on all cylinders."
The Raider offense will have another weapon at its disposal this week when redshirt freshman running back Melvin Mason returns from a concussion he suffered Sept. 21 at Eastern Oregon. Mason broke out for 236 yards rushing and two touchdowns against Sacramento State but took a shot to the head in the first quarter against Eastern Oregon and wasn't cleared to play against Dickinson State.
"I can't wait to see him against somebody other than Sacramento State," Howard said.
Like every game from here on out for the Raiders, Saturday's tilt could probably be classified as a must-win. That's because SOU began the season with two straight Frontier Conference losses — first to No. 16 Rocky Mountain then to No. 21 Montana Western — and is buried behind four teams in the conference standings and did not receive a single vote in this week's NAIA top 25 poll.
Considering the nature of those losses, however, the Raiders could make a case that they're among the best unranked teams in the nation. Against Rocky Mountain, Southern Oregon had a first-and-10 at the Bears' 15 with 3:44 to go before penalties derailed the last-gasp drive. At Montana Western, the Raiders had a 10-point lead and the ball in Bulldogs' territory with eight minutes to go before watching UMW score two touchdowns in the last six minutes. And at Sacramento State, against a Division I team many figured was out of SOU's league, the Raiders took a 56-49 lead with 1:48 to go in regulation before giving up a last-second touchdown pass and losing in overtime.
Howard says the team hasn't adopted a woe-is-me attitude concerning its 0-3 start, but does believe it is better than its record indicates.
"I don't know why we do this to ourselves," he said. "We've started off with some early season losses and then have to crawl out of it. But we are a good team and the offense is on fire — we're back to our old ways.
"We ran the table last year so the fact that we did it last year shows them that we can do it. We just can't have a miscue or a stumble. We've got to be perfect."