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Dodge, Raiders to be tested against ball-hawking Knights

The Southern Oregon football team on Friday will try to complete a dream season and a thrilling run through the NAIA Football Championship Series with a history-making victory that would clinch for the Raiders’ the program’s first national title.

In other words, the Raiders are trying to do everything that Marian, SOU’s championship game opponent, has already accomplished — two years ago in Rome, Ga.

The Marian Knights of Indianapolis, Ind., won it all in 2012, the program’s sixth year of existence, clinching the championship trophy with a 30-27 come-from-behind overtime victory over Morningside.

Now in their eighth season, the Knights have once again navigated their way through the first three rounds of the playoffs and on Friday in Daytona Beach, Fla., will be gunning for their second national title in three years. Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. Eastern (noon Pacific), and the game will be broadcast live on ESPNU.

THE OFFENSE

While the eighth-ranked Raiders (12-2) have earned their title shot by way of a high-flying offense and timely defense, the seventh-ranked Knights (11-2) rely on old-school tactics centered around a big-play defense and a two-time All-American running back. That deadly combination has helped Marian win nine games in a row to overcome a 2-2 start, the last six by 20 points or more.

Senior running back Tevin Lake is the workhorse. The 5-foot-8, 205-pound pinball is agile, quick and powerful enough to bulldoze his way through arm tackles. He’s rushed for 1,321 yards and 17 touchdowns this season, including 159 yards and two TDs in Marian’s 41-21 semifinal upset of fourth-ranked Morningside.

“He’s crucial,” SOU head coach Craig Howard said. “We’ve got to do a great job tackling and our defensive linemen have to defend their gaps because if they get him going, it’s tough. He’s the main weapon in their arsenal. But we’ve seen a lot of good running backs in the Frontier Conference and that prepares you for (the playoffs).”

Marian’s passing offense doesn’t compare to its record-setting counterpart at SOU, but it hasn’t had to, either. Junior quarterback Hayden Northern (6-3, 210) has completed 58 percent of his passes for 2,450 yards and 18 touchdowns with 14 interceptions. Those numbers may not be spectacular, but Northern, who’s not much of a run threat, has been solid in the playoffs. He passed for 318 yards and two touchdowns against Morningside, and 258 yards and three touchdowns in Marian’s quarterfinal win over second-ranked Grand View.

Northern likes to spread the ball around – five Marian receivers have 20 catches or more — but his favorite target by far is 6-4, 210-pound sophomore Krishawn Hogan. Hogan has 76 catches for 1,000 yards — nearly double Marian’s second-leading receiver — and 10 touchdowns. On Sept. 6 against Saint Xavier, a team the Raiders torched 62-37 in the semis, Hogan caught 12 passes for 153 yards and a touchdown (Saint Xavier won the game, 65-38).

“They’re more about the ground game,” Howard said, “more about playing great defense, establishing the run game and setting up the play-action pass. They use a lot of heavy run formations, two tight ends, and use the run game to set up their passing game. So our linebackers, like Laurence Calcagno and Heston Altenbach, they gotta be ready. I think that’s the ticket to the national championship, to stop their running game.”

THE DEFENSE

Against the Raiders, Marian’s defense will be tasked with slowing down a unit that’s shredded all challengers, but if any team in NAIA football can do that it’s probably Marian. That’s because the Knights’ defensive strengths — a stout run defense, ball-hawking secondary and big-down capitalism — are must-haves against a team like SOU.

The Knights rank second in the nation in run defense, allowing only 78 rushing yards a game, and consequently give up only 17.8 points per game on average, the seventh-best mark in the nation. They also rank fifth nationally with 37 sacks and have the nation’s second-best fourth-down defense (only 21.4 percent conversion rate) and 10th-best third-down defense (29.8 percent).

The Knights can defend the pass, too. Using what Howard calls a “zone fire” or “zone blitz” defense, they’ve amassed 27 interceptions (that ranks second nationally), including 10 in their three postseason games. Sophomore defensive back Eric Price leads the way with nine picks, including three in the semis, while junior defensive back Daniel Rojas and sophomore defensive back Garrett Isch have five apiece.

SOU quarterback Austin Dodge has completed 66 percent of his passes and leads the nation in both passing yards (5,178) and touchdown passes (49), so Friday’s matchup will be a classic strength-versus-strength matchup.

“I think (Dodge’s) a four-year starter and he’s seen a lot of defenses in his career and he does a great job setting up the right protections,” Howard said. “He’s a veteran and a big-time quarterback. It’s a chess game. He’s gotta see it coming and set the protection and take his drop and get the ball off on time, because they’re going to bring the heat.”

Marian’s defense allowed only nine points combined in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but its performance against Morningside probably ranks as its most impressive. With averages of 55.5 points and 662 yards, Morningside ranked as the top offense in the nation in virtually every category, but it was held scoreless in the second half against Marian.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Marian kicker Martin Waddick has made 18 of 25 field goal attempts, with a long of 43 yards, and punter Raul Reyes is carrying a 38.1 yards-per-punt average. Price returned a punt for a touchdown, and top kickoff returner Josh Miller averages 19.8 yards per return.

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.