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SOU puts 4-0 mark in playoff openers on line

ASHLAND — Southern Oregon University’s hosts MidAmerica Nazarene University in the first round of the NAIA Championship Series at 4 p.m. Saturday in Raider Stadium. Here’s a look at the matchup:

RANKINGS: The Raiders were at their highest point of the season, No. 4 in the NAIA top-25 poll, until last Saturday’s 31-27 loss to Eastern Oregon dropped them to No. 8. The Pioneers didn’t appear in the rankings until a 3-0 start put them at No. 24 on Sept. 9. Riding a six-game win streak, they own their highest ranking since the 2013 preseason at No. 9.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: One win shy of its second Frontier title in three years, SOU was awarded one of the five at-large bids into the 16-team playoff field. MNU took the Heart of America Athletic Conference’s automatic bid by going 8-1 for its first title since 2011. Two points in the final top-25 poll kept this game in Ashland; SOU received 239 to MNU’s 237, the tightest margin of any two spots in the rankings.

SERIES: First meeting.

NAIA CHAMPIONSHIP HISTORY: This marks SOU’s fifth appearance in the playoffs and first since 2012’s run to the quarterfinals in which the Raiders won at No. 8 Saint Ambrose (Iowa), 45-28, and lost in overtime at No. 3 Morningside (Iowa), 47-44. The Raiders are 4-0 in first-round games but have never made it past the second round.

The Pioneers have an all-time record of 6-10 in the NAIA FCS. They lost in the semifinals in 2010, in the quarterfinals in 2011, and at Cumberlands (Ky.) in the first round of 2012. MNU has dropped its last three postseason road games.

COACHES: Craig Howard is in his fourth season at SOU with a record of 30-14, tying him for fourth on the program’s career wins list. His teams are 15-2 when playing in Ashland, including a 7-1 mark against ranked opponents, and have been defeated in consecutive games by NAIA opponents just once.

First-year Pioneers head coach Brian Willmer is the successor of former NFL quarterback Jonathan Quinn. Willmer, hired in February, was previously an assistant for 15 seasons at Azusa Pacific (Calif.), holding the defensive coordinator position for the last eight. A small chunk of the state arrived with him: 38 players on the MSU roster are from California.

PLAYOFF PICTURE: Quarterfinal and semifinal games will be played on campus sites on Nov. 29 and Dec. 6, and the title game will be held in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Dec. 19. The 16-team series is not bracketed; the NAIA office will determine the next round’s pairings and hosts on Sunday with revenue and geography traditionally being key considerations.

TWELVE YEARS LATER: SOU’s last Championship Series game in Ashland, a 30-12 win over Montana Western in 2002, became known as the Fog Bowl. The one before that, a 16-13 loss to Carroll blanketed by freak blizzard conditions in 2001, was the Snow Bowl. Showers are likely on Saturday.

One more victory would make this the winningest group of Raiders in program history, and they already have the most (30) in any four-year stretch at SOU. The Pioneers are playoff regulars but are rebounding from a 2013 season in which they lost five or their first six and finished 5-5. They’ve defeated all three ranked teams they played: No. 7 Missouri Valley (20-17), No. 2 Baker (34-27) and No. 20 Benedictine (23-17). None of those were away games.

DODGE BALL: Raider quarterback Austin Dodge’s NAIA record-setting career totals are up to 15,580 passing yards, 140 touchdown passes and 144 total TDs. With 1,146 completions, the senior is four away from claiming that record, too, and with 63 more passing yards he’ll have his fourth consecutive 4,000-yard season.

Dodge leads the No. 1-rated pass offense in the NAIA of 370.5 yards per game (SOU’s total-offense average of 549.9 yards ranks second). He has two 1,000-yard receivers for the second time in school history in Dylan Young and former South Medford player Ryan Retzlaff. Young holds SOU’s career receiving yardage record (2,482) and is tied for the career TD catch mark (28). With one more TD catch, Young will tie the SOU single-season record for TD catches of 18.

TOUGH FOE: Challenging the Raider offense this week is the best defense, at least statistically, that it’s seen this season. MidAmerica Nazarenke ranks fourth in the NAIA in opponents’ scoring per game (15.6) and fifth in passing defense (139.6 yards/game). The Pioneers have yet to allow anyone to score more than 28 points and have conceded seven points or less in three of their last five games.

A big key to MNU’s success is its plus-13 turnover margin. Speedy tailback Javon Taylor leads the offense with 113.7 rushing yards per contest, while Trent Hedlund is completing 53 percent of his passes for 203.8 yards an outing. The Pioneers have rushed 387 times this season compared to 301 pass attempts.

SOU senior quarterback Austin Dodge has a couple more national records within reach as the Raiders get set to face MidAmerica Nazarene Saturday. PHOTO BY LARRY STAUTH JR.