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Raiders putting up gaudy numbers on offense

When Craig Howard was hired to take over the Southern Oregon University football program in 2011, he promised that with him as coach, the Raiders would play an exciting brand of football.

He wasn't kidding.

Only four games into Howard's second season at the helm the Raiders already have staked their claim as perhaps the NAIA's most dynamic offense, leading the nation in yards per game (586.5 yards) and passing yards per game (357.8) and ranking fifth in scoring offense (43.5 points per game).

Heading into Saturday's crucial home game against 24th-ranked Eastern Oregon, sophomore quarterback Austin Dodge and senior receiver Cole McKenzie both are on pace to shatter every major school record at their positions, and some of those records go back more than 40 years.

Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Raider Stadium, where the Raiders have yet to lose (5-0) since Howard took over.

"The only record we really want to beat around here is the most wins," Howard said, "but to win games you need to do well on both sides of the ball and on special teams, and offensively right now we're at an unbelievable pace. We're just almost outdoing ourselves every game and I'm so proud of the way we play."

Fans of long bombs and trick plays aren't likely to complain, either. Employing a no-huddle spread offense with a little razzle-dazzle and plenty of deep passes thrown in, the Raiders (2-2) have scored 45 points or more in three of their four games, including last week's 48-45 double-overtime loss at 13th-ranked Montana Tech.

Dodge has been the catalyst. About a year after being named the starter three games into his freshman season, the rocket-armed 6-foot-2 signal caller out of Vancouver, Wash., has completed 117 of 180 passes (65 percent) for 1,392 yards and 12 touchdowns, putting him on pace to obliterate SOU single-season records in pass attempts (326), pass completions (190), passing yards (2,712) and touchdown passes (24).

McKenzie's numbers have been equally gaudy. The 6-foot-2 receiver from Red Bluff, Calif., has 35 catches for 560 yards and five touchdowns, putting him on pace to eclipse SOU's single-season records in all three categories.

Receivers Patrick Donahue (29 catches, 322 yards, two TDs) and Mike Olson (21 catches, 274 yards, three TDs) and running back Manny Barragan (72 rushes, 426 yards, three TDs) also are contributing mightily to an SOU offense that appears to have no weaknesses.

A few other numbers worth noting: SOU has converted a stellar 51 percent (39-for-77) of its third downs and 6 of 8 fourth downs, has given up only one sack (last week), and has scored points on 88 percent (15 of 17) of its red-zone opportunities, including 11 touchdowns.

"It does start with the quarterback," Howard said following Tuesday's practice. "It's a quarterback-driven offense. We put a lot on (Austin Dodge's) plate and he accepts every bit of it. In his second year in the system he's become a coach on the field. He knows the system inside and out. I sometimes gotta pinch myself and say, 'Hey, he's going to be here two more years.' He absorbs the offense, he's in there studying film, he asks great questions, he wants to know the game plan inside and out, and then once he gets in the field of play he's got a great arm, he's got the ability to read the coverages and a quick release."

Dodge unleashed every tool in his considerable arsenal at Montana Tech, completing 42 of 57 passes — that set a Raider record for pass completions in a game — for 384 yards and four touchdowns, including a 22-yard strike to McKenzie on fourth-and-seven that kept the Raiders' hopes alive by forcing a second overtime session.

When asked about his stellar start Tuesday, Dodge tried to deflect the attention by praising his teammates.

"All those skill position players, whether it's Pat (Donahue), Mike Olson, Justin (Otaguro), Manny (Barragan), Cole (McKenzie), all those starting skill position players, they worked so hard over the summer," Dodge said. "They were out running routes, seven on seven, at drills every morning running on the track. All those players want to win so bad that they'll put in more and more effort just to get to where we're at now. And we're not to our peak yet and we will get there, but the work that they put in has really paid off."

That's bad news for an Eastern Oregon team that's coming off an inexplicable 16-3 home loss to Montana Western, which SOU throttled 54-21 in both teams' season opener.

The Mountaineers (2-2) had high hopes after opening the season with an impressive 26-23 road win over Montana Tech followed by a 17-14 victory over Montana State-Northern. But they've lost two in a row since and have scored just 13 points in their last nine quarters.

"They're a great team," Dodge said. "In this conference, it's shown that anybody can beat anybody at any given time, so there are some losses that you wouldn't think would happen and there are some wins that you wouldn't think would happen. Each team has a chance to prove themselves and make it to the playoffs and we're controlling what we can one week at a time and hopefully we can get this win Saturday and move past it."