ASHLAND — Usually when a team is nursing a three-point lead with four-and-a-half minutes to go against a national powerhouse, it obeys conventional wisdom and attempts to run out the clock with dives up the middle and safe, short passes.
But Southern Oregon just isn't into convention, and quarterback Austin Dodge instead dropped back on second-and-9 and fired a 48-yard bomb that Cole McKenzie hauled in at the Carroll 26-yard line.
"We knew that we had to be us," SOU head coach Craig Howard said, "and we have to do what we do."
Which these days means amassing yardage in huge swaths, and winning.
In a matchup that pitted the top offense in the nation against one of its best defenses, it was Southern Oregon's no-huddle spread that came out on top. The 19th-ranked Raiders racked up 719 yards of offense and ran out to a 49-25 lead before holding off a late rally to upend No. 6 Carroll 52-49 in a Frontier Conference thriller at Raider Stadium.
Playing before a near-capacity crowd revved up for a collision that was billed as the NAIA Game of the Week, the Raiders (6-2) and Saints (6-3, 6-2 Frontier) lived up to the hype by combining for 1,377 yards of offense, four fourth-down conversions and 101 points before delivering a nail-biting finish.
After Dodge's final bomb to McKenzie, the Raiders picked up one more first down thanks to a crucial mistake by the Saints — an offside penalty on fourth-and-3 — and a host of Raiders knocked down a desperation pass as time expired to clinch it.
Once Dako Stonehouse's final heave hit the turf, the Raiders rushed off the sideline and onto the field to celebrate the program's most significant victory since the 2002 season. That was the last year the Raiders qualified for the playoffs, but SOU can end that nine-year drought by winning its final two games — next week at Eastern Oregon and the following week at home against No. 8 Montana Tech. That would also deliver to SOU a Frontier Conference championship, which seemed like a longshot after its 48-45 double-overtime loss to Montana Tech on Sept. 29. But the Raiders have won four in a row since, riding an offense that's looked unstoppable, even against a Carroll team that's won six NAIA national titles in the last 10 years.
"It's amazing," said McKenzie, who caught 11 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns against a defense that was ranked 17th nationally against the pass. "I was here three years ago and to turn it around from then to now, it's amazing. I'd go to war with the coaching staff and this team. Words cannot describe how happy and proud I am of this team."
McKenzie, who caught a 30-yard TD pass from Dodge in the first quarter and a 37-yarder in the third, was one of two Raiders who finished the day with more than 200 yards receiving — Patrick Donahue added nine catches for 209 yards — as Dodge shredded a Carroll secondary that had allowed 159 yards passing a game heading into Saturday. The sophomore completed 27 of 38 passes for 526 yards and two touchdowns, adding to his school-record totals in every major passing category.
Once again, Dodge used the deep ball to poke holes in an opposing defense, including a 62-yard bomb to Donahue, the key 48-yard pass to McKenzie late in the fourth, and later a 24-yard bullet to tight end Clay Sierra on third-and-27 that set up Carroll's fourth-down miscue.
The long pass to McKenzie was only the latest example of the full-throttle approach instilled by Howard, the second-year head coach, and adopted by a Raider team that's turned out to be perfectly suited. With plenty of time remaining on the play clock and about four minutes to go in the game, Dodge fired a perfect pass — it traveled 55 yards through the air — to McKenzie, who beat Carroll cornerback Chance Smith before turning and making a basket catch while falling to the turf.
"Never take the foot off the pedal, ever," Dodge said, when asked about the risky throw.
"The coaches have confidence in all the receivers, and when our number gets called we have to go make the play," added McKenzie, who had 142 yards receiving by halftime. "Dodge has faith in all of us, and the line blocked (well). We just make plays when our number gets called and it's truly awesome to watch and see."
Carroll coach Mike Van Diest credited the Raiders with winning most of the one-on-one battles.
"We knew that they were going to throw the ball deep, and we didn't know that they could make every match like that," he said. "The quarterback, I am so impressed with him. He put the ball on the money. Even when we knew they were going to throw it, they still completed a pass. My hat's off to them, they've been doing it all year."
The Raiders appeared to be well on their way to what would have been their fourth straight blowout win before the Saints came charging back.
Down 49-25 following Mike Olson's 100-yard kickoff return with 9:54 to go in the third, Carroll scored 14 straight points to get within 10, 49-39, entering the fourth. The Raiders marched 70 yards on their next drive before settling for a field goal, and the Saints answered with a field goal of their own with 10:40 to go.
After finally forcing the Raiders to punt — SOU's only punt of the game — Carroll took over the ball at its own 18 with 7:30 to go and proceeded to drive 82 yards in nine plays, converting a fourth-and-15 along the way when the dual-threat Stonehouse scrambled out of the pocket and found Chance Demarais for a 19-yard gain.
Stonehouse torched the SOU defense with both his arm and his feet, completing 19 of 30 passes for 233 yards and four touchdowns and running 18 times for 195 yards and another score.
Demarais, the reigning NAIA Player of the Year, rushed for 139 yards.
After each team completed two long touchdown drives in the first quarter, the Raiders scored 21 straight points in the second. Running back Manny Barragin, who had 158 yards rushing on 28 carries, bulldozed in from the 1 twice in the second quarter, capping a 74-yard drive early in the quarter and an 84-yard drive with 10:13 to go. Later, Olson rushed in a sweep from the 5 to complete a nine-play, 80-yard drive and give SOU a 35-13 lead after the PAT.
The Saints countered with a 66-yard drive, with Stonehouse's 17-yard pass to Jared Mayernik cutting the lead to 35-19.
Olson's kickoff return may have been the best highlight in a day full of them. The 5-foot-8, 180-pound receiver caught the ball at the goal line and bolted through a seam before running away from a host of Saints as a near-capacity crowd (3,057 were in attendance) erupted.
"We work all week on how it's supposed to be," Olson said. "There are two guys that are going to kick out and I'm going to run off their butts. Once it kicked out it opened up right away and I just ran right past them all the way down. I was just running as fast as I can and thinking to myself, 'Please don't get caught, please don't get caught.'"
He didn't, and neither did the Raiders, although the Saints provided a Halloween-worthy scare before it was over.
Now, the Raiders, who will almost certainly jump several spots in next week's NAIA Top 25 poll, are two wins away from accomplishing one of their goals and qualifying for the national tournament. Based on previous results, SOU appears to have a good shot. The Raiders pounded Eastern Oregon 68-22 on Oct. 6 and lost to Montana Tech 48-45 in Butte, Mont.
"I think it says that we are a relevant national program now," Howard said. "We're not just the best team in the Rogue Valley. We lead the nation in many categories, but leading the nation in many categories doesn't matter. What matters is that we beat a team that is the Alabama of NAIA football. There's only three teams in (SOU) history that have gone into the playoffs "… if we win the next two, we're in the playoffs."
Southern Oregon 52, Carroll 49
At Raider Stadium
Carroll 13 6 20 10 —00
Southern Oregon 14 21 14 3 —52
CC — Demarais 4 run (Lyons kick)
SOU — McKenzie 30 pass from Dodge (Amsler kick)
SOU — Olson 2 run (Amsler kick)
CC — Stonehouse 64 run (Lyons kick)
SOU — Barragan 1 run (Amsler kick)
SOU — Barragan 1 run (Amsler kick)
SOU — Olson 5 run (Amsler kick)
CC — Mayernik 17 pass from Stonehouse (pass failed)
SOU — McKenzie 37 pass from Dodge (Amsler kick)
CC — Rinker 65 run (pass failed)
SOU — Olson 100 kickoff return (Marshall pass from Dodge)
CC — Bogumill 32 pass from Stonhouse (Yaremko kick)
SOU — FG Amsler 22
CC — FG Yaremko 32
CC — Hunt 9 pass from Stonehouse (Yaremko kick)
First Downs 30 27
Rushes-Yards 43-425 44-193
Passing Yards 233 526
Comp-Att-Int 19-30-0 27-38-1
Total Yards 658 719
Punts 3-40.3 1-35
Fumbles-lost 0-0 1-0
Penalties-yards 9-93 9-108
Carroll College — Stonehouse 18-184, Demarais 18-139, Rinker 6-87, Clarke 1-15.
Southern Oregon — Barragan 28-153, Marshall 6-18, Olson 6-14, Kammel 1-6, Dodge 3-2.
Carroll College — Stonehouse 19-30-0 233.
Southern Oregon — Dodge 27-38-1 526.
Carroll College — Simac 4-54, Demarais 4-45, Clarke 4-39, Hunt 3-27, Mayernik 2-54, Clausen 1-9, Hogan 1-5.
Southern Oregon — McKenzie 11-234, Donahue 9-209, Sierra 3-55, Barragan 2-6, Olson 1-12, Otaguro 1-10.