ASHLAND — A month after digging themselves a pretty deep hole, the Southern Oregon Raiders are out and climbing right back into the Frontier Conference title chase.
Junior quarterback Austin Dodge continued his torrid pace by passing for 469 yards and five touchdowns and the SOU defense led a key second-half surge as the Raiders outscored No. 18 Montana State-Northern 31-0 in the third quarter to pick up their fourth football win in a row, 55-28, Saturday at Raider Stadium.
After starting the season with three straight losses, including two league setbacks, the Raiders (4-3, 4-2 Frontier) are now third in the conference standings, one game behind the co-leaders, seventh-ranked Carroll College and 12th-ranked Rocky Mountain.
"We come into every game expecting to win," said SOU sophomore linebacker Austin Smith, who led the defense with eight tackles and a sack. "We know we're just as good as anyone in the country. We had a rough start, but that doesn't define us as a team. Rankings don't mean anything to us. We think we can play with anybody so there's no surprise to us there."
The surprise Saturday was that the Lights (4-3 Frontier), who have now lost two straight, limited the Raiders to 214 yards and one touchdown in the first half. They did so by following the blueprint for slowing down a big-play offense like SOU's: keep the ball away by running the ball effectively, eat up clock and force turnovers. Led by running back Zach McKinley (10 carries, 48 yards rushing), the Lights rushed for 112 yards in the first half, gained 14 first downs and doubled the Raiders in time of possession, 20:47 to 9:13.
Then the second half began.
Dodge capped five of SOU's next eight drives with touchdown passes of 29 yards or more and by the time Montana State-Northern finally crossed midfield again five minutes into the fourth quarter the Raiders were up 55-7 and resting their starters.
"I don't think we did anything different in the second half," Lights defensive coordinator Jake Eldridge said. "Really what happened is that they just came out and they got a couple big plays on us, and right away it just kind of spiraled out of control."
The first of those big plays was a free play that Dodge took advantage of. On fourth-and-three at the Montana State-Northern 29, a Lights lineman jumped offsides, allowing the Raiders a freebie. Dodge saw the opportunity and lofted a why-not pass into the end zone which was hauled in by Dylan Young. Young, who had eight catches for 160 yards and two TDs, was blanketed on the play by Trevor Baum but won the jump ball.
The 36-yard drive took just 65 seconds off the clock, gave SOU a 17-7 lead after the PAT and was a sign of things to come. The Raiders completed five scoring drives in the third quarter — four touchdowns and Aldrick Rosas' 45-yard field goal — and none of those ate more than 1 minute, 50 seconds off the clock.
Dodge threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Retzlaff to increase the lead to 24-7, a 32-yard pass to Retzlaff to make it 38-7, a 48-yard pass to Young to make it 48-7 and a 31-yard pass to Sean McShane for 55-7. In between, Sean Tow bolted up the middle for a 12-yard touchdown, Rosas drilled his second long field goal of the season and the Raiders defense pitched a third-quarter shutout.
The bomb to Young was vintage Dodge — counting his drop-back, Dodge's pass sailed more than 50 yards through the air and hit Young on the numbers as he crossed the goal line.
"The defense is playing well, the offense caught fire and we started to roll," said SOU third-year head coach Craig Howard, who has yet to lose a game at Raider Stadium. "We got what we call the 'mo'. The crowd got into it, turned the corner and all of a sudden we rolled them up. But for a while there, it was a nail-biter."
"I mean, it all starts with Austin Dodge," Eldridge said. "He's so good at throwing that deep ball, and those receivers can run under and adjust to it and get underneath it."
Retzlaff had eight catches for 168 yards and two touchdowns, and Melvin Mason rushed for 64 yards and a score.
Lights quarterback Derek Lear completed 8 of 21 passes for 91 yards but was picked off twice. One of those interceptions was made by Josh Leff, who had a second pick after Lear was later replaced.
Before long the only drama that remained centered on Dodge's right ankle. He twisted it when he was knocked to the ground late in the third quarter and quickly hobbled to the training table for a re-tape job. By the time the Raiders forced another Montana State-Northern punt — the Raiders held the Lights to 17 yards of offense and one first down in the third quarter — Dodge jogged back out onto the field, albeit with a noticeable limp.
"To be honest, I didn't think about coming out at all," said Dodge, whose 34 touchdown passes are eight shy of the single-season program record he set last year — with four regular-season games still to go. "Obviously I want to perform for my team and lead the offense into the end zone. That's all that was running through my mind. It was tough but, at the same time, everyone has bumps and bruises so you gotta fight through it, you gotta find a way to win and, obviously, we did that today."
At Raider Stadium
Mont. St-Northern 0 7 0 21 —28
Southern Oregon 0 10 31 14 —55
MSU-N — Lear 8 pass from Johnson (Rueschhoff kick)
SOU — Mason 5 run (Rosas kick)
SOU — FG Rosas 28
SOU — Young 29 pass from Dodge (Rosas kick)
SOU — R. Retzlaff 32 pass from Dodge (Rosas kick)
SOU — Tow 12 run (Rosas kick)
SOU — R. Retzlaff 32 pass from Dodge (Rosas kick)
SOU — FG Rosas 45
SOU — McShane 31 pass from Dodge (Rosas kick)
MSU-N — Gabbato 3 run (Rueschhoff kick)
MSU-N — McKinley 1 run (Rueschhoff kick)
MSU-N — Johnson 5 pass from Dean (Rueschhoff kick)
First Downs 24 26
Rushes-Yards 50-179 28-99
Passing Yards 222 469
Comp-Att-Int 15-35-3 28-47-1
Total Yards 401 568
Punts 6-36.5 3-43
Fumbles-lost 1-1 1-0
Penalties-yards 6-51 12-115
Montana State-Northern — McKinley 16-56, Gabbato 9-34, Lear 12-33, Dean 2-28, Johnson 4-14, Woodhall 1-11, Johnson 3-9, Rueschhoff 1-6, Messerly 1-(-5), Baum 1-(-7).
Southern Oregon — Mason 9-60, Tow 3-41, Kammel 5-8, Lawrence 1-1, Marshall 3-0, Carlson 1-(-1), M. Retzlaff 3-(-1), Dodge 3-(-9).
Montana State-Northern — Lear 8-21-2 91, Dean 6-13-1 123, Johnson 1-1-0 8, Baum 0-0-0 0.
Southern Oregon — Dodge 28-45-1 469, Kammel 0-2-0 0.
Montana State-Northern — Woodhall 3-69, Montelius 3-50, Johnson 3-28, Jansen 2-23, Messerly 1-30, Gabbato 1-8, Lear 1-8, Johnson 1-6.
Southern Oregon — R. Retzlaff 8-168, Young 8-160, Birks 4-24, Mason 3-20, McShane 2-43, M. Retzlaff 1-21, Tow 1-20, Marshall 1-13.