Southern Oregon football coach Craig Howard wants his players to know what to expect when they get off the bus in Helena, Mont., for Saturday's Frontier Conference showdown with fifth-ranked Carroll College.
ASHLAND — Southern Oregon football coach Craig Howard wants his players to know what to expect when they get off the bus in Helena, Mont., for today's Frontier Conference showdown with fifth-ranked Carroll College. So the charismatic coach who has never shied away from hyperbole told the 20th-ranked Raiders to watch HBO's Legendary Nights: The Tale of Gatti-Ward, a documentary that chronicles three epic boxing matches between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward in the early 2000's.
The message is clear: Get ready for 30 rounds — or four quarters — of blood, sweat and, eventually, tears.
"Because that's what this football game is going to be like," Howard said. "Toe to toe, last man standing.
"We always take the approach that it's a faceless opponent, but our guys know that there's a little more spice on this one."
That spice comes in the form of sky-high stakes. Since both teams are tied at 6-1 in Frontier games, today's winner will be all alone atop the conference standings with two weeks remaining in the regular season. The conference champion receives an automatic bid to the NAIA Championship Series, the NAIA's 16-team playoff tournament which determines the national champion.
Kickoff is slated for noon Pacific time at the 7,000-seat Nelson Stadium.
For SOU that automatic bid is crucial. The Raiders (6-2 overall) take a five-game winning streak into Helena, but would probably be knocked out of playoff contention with a loss since their final two games against unranked foes Eastern Oregon and Montana Tech are unlikely to provide the necessary bump in the polls. That means the Raiders are probably playing for more than a league title today — chances are, they're also playing for their playoff lives.
To survive, Southern Oregon will have to win a classic strength versus strength matchup against the Fighting Saints (7-1), who are on a three-game winning streak of their own.
Carroll has the nation's top ranked scoring defense (12 points per game allowed) and also ranks second in first downs allowed (100) and seventh in sacks (23.5).
Led by All-American quarterback Austin Dodge, Southern Oregon ranks second nationally in points per game (53), and first in passing offense per game (432.4 yards) and total offense per game (604.6).
Last year's SOU-Carroll matchup featured a similar storyline, and it was the Raiders' big-play offense that won the day, Oct. 27 in Ashland. The Raiders raced out to a 41-19 lead then held off a late Carroll charge to prevail, 52-49. Dodge passed for 526 yards and two touchdowns, and gained another fan in Carroll head coach Mike Van Diest.
"Austin Dodge probably throws as good a deep ball as I've seen in 37 years of coaching," said Van Diest, who guided the Saints to six national championships between 2002 and 2010. "We have to minimize that. And offensively, we have to be able to control the football."
That means the Saints will look to sustain drives behind dual-threat quarterback Dakota Stonehouse and running back Dustin Rinker.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Stonehouse has completed 68 percent of his passes for 1,401 yards, 17 touchdowns and three interceptions. He's also averaging 63 yards per game rushing.
Rinker, listed at 5-9, 205 pounds, is averaging 134 yards per game rushing and 5.4 yards per carry to lead the seventh-best rushing offense in the nation.
Howard says SOU's ability to contain the fleet-footed Stonehouse will be one of the game's keys. Stonehouse burned the Raiders to the tune of 428 yards — 233 passing, 195 rushing — and five TDs last season.
"What a competitor he is at quarterback," Howard said. "He makes plays when plays aren't there and he can throw the ball extremely well. You've got to do a great job of tackling because when he gets in the open field he's awfully tough to bring down. You just can rush in there like a wild man."
If Carroll can't keep drives alive against an SOU defense that's surrendering 435 yards and 32 points a game, it could face another uphill battle against the quick-striking Raiders.
Dodge, a junior, leads the nation in passing yards per game (422.8) and touchdown passes (41) and ranks third in pass efficiency (170.4). SOU junior receiver Dylan Young ranks first in receiving yards per game (127.3) and fellow receiver Ryan Retzlaff, also a junior, leads the nation in total receptions (66).
"You look at their kids, they've got some pretty talented players," Van Diest said. "You've got to be able to control the football. Field position is very important. And you can't afford many three-and-outs."
On the flip side, the Saints would love to force the Raiders into some quick three-and-outs, especially in the early going as the Raiders try to establish a rhythm. Against SOU that means defending the long bomb, because unlike most spread no-huddle offenses the Raiders like to stretch the field vertically. A lot.
"Last year (against Carroll), we had a plan to take 18 shots down field," Howard said. "I believe we hit 16. That's part of our tool box, so when it's there we're going to try to take it."
But like any heavyweight bout, Howard says that a steady diet of body blows could be the difference. SOU freshman running back Melvin Mason went off for 236 yards rushing in Week 3 at Sacramento State and rushed for 151 yards last week against Montana Western. With so much attention being paid to Dodge and the Raiders' litany of receivers, Howard is hoping that Mason emerges as the X-factor.
"We've got to have a running game," Howard said. "If he can get that against this defense, we'll be happy and we'll win."
Helena received eight inches of snow on Monday, but today's forecast calls for clear skies with a high of 49 degrees. That's fine by Van Diest, who says that both teams are good enough to overcome poor field conditions should an unexpected storm move in.
The game represents the first of back-to-back top-25 showdowns for Carroll, which hosts eighth-ranked Rocky Mountain next week. Southern Oregon, on the other hand, appears to have a very good shot at completing what would be a second straight league title run should it beat Carroll. That because the Raiders finish with games against Eastern Oregon and Montana Tech, teams that SOU has already hammered this season by a combined score of 132-52.
But first, a main event between two teams accustomed to first-round knockouts.
"Well, there's not a lot of season left now," Van Diest said. "The nice thing about both of us is that we hold our destiny in our hands. And that's what this game is about."