So far, nobody's been able to slow down the Southern Oregon University Raiders.
So far, nobody's been able to slow down the Southern Oregon University Raiders. And only four teams in the nation have been more stingy on defense than the Carroll College Saints.
No wonder the NAIA has dubbed Saturday's matchup the Game of the Week.
The nation's most explosive offense will face one of the great defenses — not to mention a perennial national title contender — when the 19th-ranked Raiders host the sixth-ranked Saints at Raider Stadium.
In a contest bulging with story lines, the most important one is this: Southern Oregon (5-2) trails both Carroll (6-1) and eighth-ranked Montana Tech (6-1) by one game in the Frontier Conference standings with three games remaining on each team's regular season schedule, including SOU's season finale against Montana Tech.
If the Raiders can run the table, they'll celebrate their first season as a member of the Frontier Conference by claiming their first league title and the automatic berth to the NAIA national championships that comes with it. But if they lose just one of those games, they'll most likely go down as the most exciting team to miss the playoffs.
"This is our season, basically," SOU senior right guard Zach Urrutia. "If we don't win out we're not going to the playoffs, so this is the biggest game of the year."
Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. at Raider Stadium, where the Raiders have yet to lose under second-year head coach Craig Howard.
The game will be a contrast in styles, with Carroll's ball-control, run-oriented offense, led by running back Chance Demarais, the reigning NAIA Player of the Year, squaring off against a Raider offense that ranks No. 1 in the nation in yards per game (644.6), passing yards per game (437.9), first downs per game (31.1) and points per game (54.7).
SOU and its spread no-huddle attack has yet to face a defense like Carroll's, which ranks second in the nation in sacks and fifth in total defense (253.3 yards per game against).
"They're the best team we've played to date and best we've played in two years," Howard said. "They're so well coached."
Linebacker Sean Blomquist leads the Saints with 61 tackles, including 11 for losses, while defensive end Sean Condon leads the team and ranks ninth nationally with 6 1/2 sacks. Equally impressive is the way Carroll is able to apply that kind of pressure to opposing quarterbacks without frequent blitzes.
In fact, Howard says, the Saints rarely blitz, choosing instead to rely almost exclusively on their defensive linemen to rush opposing quarterbacks.
"Off all the (film) breakdowns we've seen maybe 10 blitzes (by Carroll) all year," Howard said. "This team rushes four, sometimes three, and they do get sacks that way. They're very fundamentally sound on defense, and they pressure well."
That's something that few teams have been able to do against the Raiders, who have allowed just four sacks all season, including one against starting quarterback Austin Dodge.
The Saints, who are 6-2 overall counting a nonleague loss to Division I-FCS Portland State, will probably try to control the clock behind a rushing offense that ranks eighth nationally in yard per game (251.8). Three Carroll running backs have rushed for at least 500 yards, led by Demarais, who's ran for 720 yards and six touchdowns on 149 carries. Quarterback Dakota Stonehouse is second on the team with 615 yards rushing, and has also completed 103 of 155 passes (66.5 percent) for 1,330 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Carroll receiver Anthony Clarke leads the team in receptions (22) and yards (419) and is tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions (four).
Howard expects Carroll to try to hold on to the ball as long as possible in an effort to keep the SOU offense on the sideline.
"That's what they're built to do," he said. "They want to keep it away from the Raiders, so that's what we expect them to (try). But our defense has been pretty good against the run, really. Our Achilles heel has been the pass."
That also happens to be the Achilles heel for every defense that's had to face the Raiders. Dodge has thrown for at least 300 yards in every game this season and leads the nation in passing yards per game (394.7), with 25 touchdowns and four interceptions. Receivers Cole McKenzie and Patrick Donahue both are on pace to surpass 1,000 yards receiving, and, providing balance to an offense that seemingly has no weakness, running back Manny Barragin has rushed for 638 yards and seven touchdowns on 123 carries.
Urrutia said the Saints' defense looks tough on film, but fully expects another high-scoring game.
"They have a really athletic D-line," he said. "They're probably the best D-linemen we'll face this year. Their ends are real athletic guys, quick. They're not super big, so that's an advantage we have. And they don't handle tempo well, so we'll be even more up-tempo this game."
Besides that, Howard said the Raiders will pretty much stick to the script that led them to what may be the program's most important game since the last time it faced Carroll — the 2002 national quarterfinals.
"That's what I've told the boys this week, we don't have to have a super unbelievable game plan," Howard said. "What we have to do is be who we are and play the way we've been playing. If we do that, it's going to be a great football game."