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Baldwin 'the answer' for Raiders

The hot shot running back humbly deflecting praise away from his gaudy numbers and toward the offensive line he runs behind has become so common, it's practically a sports cliché.

But Southern Oregon sophomore tailback Brandon Baldwin goes the extra mile, using specific examples and statistics to back up his statements.

Take his most recent explosion. The transfer from Shasta College was probably entitled to a little more credit than usual following last week's gargantuan 44-carry, 278-yard effort against Azusa Pacific — a performance that earned him an NAIA Independent Player of the Week nod. Instead, he made it sound as if most of those yards were handed to him on a silver platter.

"We had a good scheme set up for them," Baldwin said following Thursday's practice, where the Raiders (2-4) continued to prepare for Saturday's game at Humboldt State (3-3). "We had it set up so that our linemen, our big guys, were going to be on their big guys and I was going to be isolated against their safeties and, every once in a while, their linebackers. Sometimes it works out better than other times and last weekend was just a really successful shot at it.

"And once again I can't give enough credit to our linemen. Almost every play I'm running five yards before I even get touched. I had like a 6.3 average, but five yards of it I'm not even getting touched."

A quick glance at the box score reveals that Baldwin did indeed average 6.3 yards per carry, fantastic production when you consider that his 44 carries ranks second all-time at SOU. That's a lot of punishment for Baldwin's 5-foot-11, 195-pound frame, but Raider head coach Steve Helminiak said that his star running back has the tools to carry that kind of load, thanks mostly to his ability to make would-be tacklers look foolish.

"Brandon very seldom takes big shots because of his running style," Helminiak said. "He's so low and very elusive, so I think he can handle that, but I would prefer to keep it between 30 and 35. And that's what I want, I want a back that can handle it for 30 or 35, and if we need it, 40."

So far, Baldwin has been up to the task. Through six games he's rushed for 889 yards and five touchdowns on 177 carries. That averages out to 141.3 rushing yards per game on 29.5 carries, which unofficially makes Baldwin the running back Helminiak has been searching for since taking over the SOU football program in 2006.

Baldwin's road to Ashland is similar to the one taken by many Raiders past and present. He starred in high school in northern California, attempted to make his mark at the Division I level as a walk-on at University of Nevada, Reno, but left when he realized that moving up a depth chart peppered with scholarship players was unlikely. That led Baldwin to Shasta College, where he became an integral part on one of the best teams in Knights history. Riding an MVP, 152-yard effort by Baldwin, Shasta stormed back from an 18-point third-quarter deficit to beat Monterey Peninsula in the Bulldog Bowl. Baldwin finished the season with 1,191 rushing yards, which ranks No. 3 all-time at Shasta.

Baldwin had been on SOU's radar since his high school days, but the breakout season at Shasta regained the attention of Helminiak, who saw Baldwin as the perfect compliment to the Raiders' zone blocking schemes.

"That was our number one priority in recruiting," Helminiak said.

Helminiak's dedication to the running game came through in conversations he had with Baldwin, who quickly became convinced that it would be a good fit for him, too.

"I was stoked," Baldwin said, "because he was a serious coach who was interested in a running back of my type, the way I run. It all just worked out. After talking to coach a little bit, I kind of agreed that this is where I wanted to be because they were looking for more of a run-heavy game. It was nice to hear that."

For Helminiak, it was nice to hear Baldwin's commitment, too. Helminiak stressed the importance of a strong running game since joining the Raiders, but through his first three years here the search for a true featured back in the mold of former SOU greats Griff Yates and Dusty McGrorty proved mostly fruitless.

Not anymore.

"Baldwin's the answer," Helminiak said. "He's got tremendous balance, tremendous forward lean, he's strong, he never goes down on a first hit. We didn't have that last year, and the year before, and the year before. We've got a bona fide tailback."

Helminiak hopes that Baldwin can help SOU control the line of scrimmage again against Humboldt State, an NCAA Division II team that's 12 points away from a 6-0 record.

The Lumberjacks, coming off a 34-27 loss to fourth-ranked Central Washington, rely on a two-quarterback system and a defense that ranks 25th in the nation in points allowed (18.5 per game).

Helminiak expects the Lumberjacks to "pack the box" and force the Raiders to throw the ball. That means SOU quarterback Paul Sweeney, who has regained his spot in the starting lineup, could be the key to the Raider offense.

"If Paul can make some of those big throws," Helminiak said, "then I think we'll have some success."