Raiders ready for tough semi against Cougs
ASHLAND — Southern Oregon and its record-breaking quarterback will have to sidestep one of the best pass rushers in the country in order to advance to the NAIA national championship game.
Austin Dodge and the eighth-ranked Raiders square off against defensive end Greg Hayward and the third-ranked Saint Xavier (Ill.) Cougars on Saturday in the semifinals of the NAIA Football Championship Series at Deaton Field in Chicago. The intriguing matchup is scheduled to kickoff at 1 p.m. local time, 11 a.m. Pacific.
One week removed from the biggest win in program history — last Saturday’s 45-42 upset of No. 1 Carroll — the Raiders (11-2) venture into uncharted territory against a team that’s on a 10-game home playoff win streak and is led by a player in Hayward who ranks second in the NAIA in sacks (15) and was recently voted the Mid-States Football Association Midwest League defensive player of the year.
If there was any concern that the Raiders would need a few days to get over the thrill of overcoming a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit in the snow to Carroll, SOU head coach Craig Howard said it disappeared when the team returned to the practice field Monday refocused and ready to prepare for Saint Xavier (10-2).
“To tell the truth these guys are a joy to coach,” Howard said. “With some teams it would have been difficult, but these guys are on a mission and they got back to work Monday. They didn’t sit around and congratulate themselves. They’re focused on the next game, and that’s really a tribute to the maturity of our team. We’ve been very professional this week, very businesslike.”
The Cougars, who beat No. 6 Lindsey Wilson 30-17 last week to improve to 10-1 all-time in home playoff games, provide a host of challenges for the Raiders on both sides of the ball. Offensively, they’re led by a quarterback in John Rhode who ranks third nationally in total passing (3,301 yards) and has thrown for at least 275 yards seven times this season. And defensively, they’ve got the imposing Hayward (6-foot-3, 230 pounds), who Howard calls possibly the best defensive player the Raiders have faced since he took over the program in 2011.
Rhode, who passed for 298 yards and four touchdowns last week, leads a diverse spread offense that ranks eighth nationally in scoring (38.2 points per game), sixth in total yards per game (459.0) and ninth in third-down conversion percentage (43.5). He likes to spread the ball around, but his top three targets — Stephen Simms, Nick DeBenedetti and Randall Wells — have 201 of the team’s 265 receptions.
Simms, a 5-8, 175-pound sophomore, leads the team with 75 catches for 1,062 yards and eight touchdowns and is averaging 152.5 yards receiving per game in the postseason, including a 210-yard explosion against Campbellsville in the first round. DeBenedetti has 73 catches for 916 yards and eight touchdowns.
“They’re a spread team and they’ve got some great receivers — balanced,” Howard said. “Simms has been tearing it up, but he’s not the only guy. (DeBenedetti) is good, too. And they’ve got a third guy, too. So, a bunch of good receivers, a good quarterback and a good offensive line.”
The Cougars don’t put as much emphasis on their running game, but they can do that, too. They average 163 yards rushing per contest, led by Mike Ivlow (505 yards, 10 TDs) and the versatile Simms (368 yards).
Also of note, the Cougars, like the Raiders, are not afraid to take chances in order to maintain possession. Up 27-17 in the fourth quarter and facing a fourth-and-6 from their own 13-yard line against Lindsey Wilson, the Cougars executed a fake punt to pick up the first down.
Defensively, Saint Xavier loves to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks by blitzing often, and the Cougars will take chances in order to do that by employing one-on-one coverage in the secondary. Sometimes the payoff is huge, and sometimes it backfires. No. 17 Campbellsville burned the Cougars for 308 yards and five TDs through the air, but Saint Xavier’s aggressive style — and Hayward — enjoyed the last laugh. The visitors took over the ball at their own 25 with 4:11 to go, but their opportunity to tie or take the lead was squashed by three straight sacks — two by Hayward.
Hayward and his teammates will try to do the same against Dodge, the three-time Frontier Conference offensive player of the year who leads the nation in passing yards (4,717), passing touchdowns (44) and completions (324).
Howard said SOU offensive tackles Drew Gibson and Tylor King will be keys against Hayward and the Saint Xavier defense, which has a combined 36 sacks and 102 tackles for a loss.
“(Gibson and King) are pretty good, but we may have to double-team (Hayward),” Howard said. “Whatever it takes to keep Dodge upright.”
Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. He can be reached at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org