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SOU Raiders get first shot at national title

CHICAGO — Already the NAIA’s all-time career record holder in nearly every major passing category, Southern Oregon quarterback Austin Dodge added to his resume as perhaps the greatest signal-caller in NAIA history by torching St. Xavier’s defense Saturday and sending his team to its first national championship game.

Dodge certainly isn’t satisfied, though.

“I feel like I’ll cement my legacy when we win the national championship and only if we win the national championship,” he said. “I’d give every single accolade back to win a national championship and put a ring on all of these guys’ fingers. I’m going to do my part to help us win a national title.”

Dodge and the No. 8 Raiders will get their chance to earn those rings after piling up 643 yards of total offense and rolling to a 62-37 win over No. 3 St. Xavier at Bruce R. Deaton Memorial Field in Chicago.

“We’ve always said the only thing that stops us is if we stop ourselves,” Southern Oregon coach Craig Howard said. “We’ve put together one of the best offenses in NAIA history. To come in here and put this many points on a team like St. Xavier, it’s a great accomplishment.

“Four years ago, the program was down. I’ve recruited guys with character that love each other and love the game of football. We’ve got a heck of a football team.”

The Raiders (12-2) will meet No. 7 Marian (Indiana) in the national championship game Dec. 19 in Daytona Beach, Florida. St. Xavier finished 10-3.

Dodge finished 32-of-51 for 460 yards and five touchdowns.

“Their quarterback is probably the best I’ve seen in my 16 years,” St. Xavier coach Mike Feminis said. “He’s what we thought he’d be. He made plays all day.”

Early on, the game was shaping up to be a shootout. St. Xavier took a 17-10 lead after one quarter. The Southern Oregon defense rose to the occasion, however. After the Cougars scored on their first three possessions, the Raiders held them scoreless for their next six.

The Southern Oregon offensive machine, meanwhile, kept firing on all cylinders. The result was 31 consecutive points for the Raiders.

Senior linebacker Heston Altenbach delivered the nail in St. Xavier’s coffin, intercepting a pass thrown by receiver Ryan Carroll on a trick play and returning it 30 yards for a score and a 41-17 lead with 8:51 left in the third quarter.

“I saw Laurence Calcagno tip the ball and I looked up and there’s the ball,” Altenbach said. “So I just caught it and ran as fast as I can.”

Southern Oregon took the lead for good on a 3-yard touchdown run from Sean Tow that made it 24-17 with 4:39 left in the first half.

Also during the 31-0 run, Dodge threw touchdown passes of 2 yards to Ronald Rylance and 7 to Matt Retzlaff (six catches, 88 yards, two TDs) and Aldrick Rosas hit a 28-yard field goal.

The score for Rylance, Southern Oregon’s center, was perhaps a sign that it was going to be the Raiders’ day. Dodge’s pass was tipped at the line and fell into the arms of the 305-pound senior, who scampered into the end zone.

Ryan Retzlaff (11 catches, 106 yards) and Dylan Young (six catches, 108 yards) also had touchdown catches for the Raiders.

“There’s eight to 10 guys in our receiving core that can come in and make plays,” Young said. “We have a lot of confidence in each other and know that one of us will make a big play. (Saturday), all of us made big plays.”

Melvin Mason ran 16 times for 89 yards, while Calcagno and Altenbach led the Raiders’ defense with 11 and 10 tackles, respectively.

The trip to Daytona Beach will be a homecoming for Howard, who coached high school football in Florida for 16 years. He coached Tim Tebow and says Dodge is the best quarterback he’s coached.

“We’re going to have a lot of people down there cheering for us,” he said. “It’s just going to be a celebration of what this team has done the last four years.”

The Raiders hope there’ll be a championship to celebrate as well.

“It’s going to be a fun experience,” Dodge said. “It’s something Southern Oregon has never experienced. We’re going to go down there and take care of business.”

Southern Oregon's Austin Dodge looks for a receiver in the second quarter against St. Xaiver Saturday. PHOTO BY VINCENT D. JOHNSON
Southern Oregon's Connor Astley lifts his uncle, Richard Bopp, into the air after the Raiders clinched a spot in the NAIA national championship game Saturday with a 62-37 victory at St. Xavier. PHOTO BY VINCENT D. JOHNSON