A plane was leaving its contrails high above the practice field at Southern Oregon University just as head football coach Craig Howard was explaining one of his favorite things — the deep ball.
The smile that was already on Howard's face began to widen as the aircraft whizzed by. He had found his simile.
"The threat is the shot," he says, his twinkling eyes looking skyward. "A vertical shot downfield where the ball goes up like that jet right there and drops down 40 yards down the field."
who: Southern Oregon University sophomore quarterback Austin Dodge and the Raiders are demolishing records this year in head coach Craig Howard's up-tempo offense.
up next: Saturday, Montana Tech at Southern Oregon, 1:05 p.m.
Nearby, one of Howard's favorite people — SOU sophomore quarterback Austin Dodge — cranked out darts to open receivers during a passing drill.
Together, Dodge and Howard have helped pilot the 12th-ranked Raiders to a season brimming with video-game statistics, shattered records and momentous wins.
The Raiders' weapon of choice has been the deep ball, which Dodge wields early and often.
When the smoke clears most Saturdays, SOU has left its own contrails in the sky.
Few can find comparisons for what the Raiders (7-2) do on offense. They aren't like the Oregon Ducks, who rely heavily on a rushing attack, and they aren't the same as quick passing teams seen at Texas Tech, West Virginia or Houston. SOU is Nick Saban's worst nightmare, a frantic menace to the society of traditionalists, a no-huddle up-tempo raid that begins in the air with brash passes unleashed relentlessly and with remarkable success. With the defense on its toes, SOU will blend some running and short pass plays into the boiling stew before dropping another rock deep inside it. Will there be a trick play? Yep, Howard guarantees it. Will it return next week, next month, or get buried for a year? Howard's not telling.
Defenses are left to guess.
The Raiders average around 94 plays a contest while most college squads execute around 65, offensive coordinator Ken Fasnacht says. Once this year, they had 110.
"We get another quarter's worth of offensive output," Fasnacht says.
The Red Bull system leaves opponents flustered.
"There have been a couple teams and a couple defensive backs actually where we'll make catches and they just can't believe it," receiver Cole McKenzie says. "I heard a defensive lineman a couple weeks ago say, 'Not this again.'"
SOU's numbers are disorienting.
The 6-foot-2 Dodge, in his second season with the Raiders, leads the nation in passing yardage (3,839 total, 426.6 per game) and total offense (3,933 total, 437 per game). He has 862 more passing yards than the NAIA's second-best arm. The 2010 Skyview High graduate has already set new program records for season passing, completions (266), attempts (402), touchdowns (31) and total offense.
The snapshots of his success are astounding. He registered 42 completions against Montana Tech last month and 550 passing yards against Eastern Oregon last week. Against Carroll earlier this year, Dodge recorded 10 passes that went for 22 or more yards — 62, 48, 47, 46, 44, 43, 37, 30, 23, 22.
SOU, which has broken more than 10 team and individual game and season program records, has tallied 498 total points this season, 24 more than the 2001 team's previous program record. The Raiders' 5,873 offensive yards broke the old team record by more than 1,300 yards.
"We are gonna stretch the field 100 yards in length and 53 yards and a-third in width, and we're gonna try to use every bit of it through the passing game first, and then have the running game come in second," Fasnacht says. "And when it's all said and done we'll actually be balanced."
Howard has dreamed up wild football notions and Dodge has put them into action. The two need each other, like a pilot and co-pilot. Dodge is a quietly confident athlete who transferred from NCAA Division II Central Washington University. Howard is a flamboyant coaching veteran of 38 years. The eccentric style that results from their synergy is electric, and it's put a buzz back into a program that just two years ago finished the season 3-7.
The Raiders have not ventured into the postseason since 2002 and were picked to finish fifth in the coaches preseason poll. Things changed though. In a hurry.
SOU hosts No. 7 Montana Tech (8-1) on Saturday with a chance to clinch a share of the Frontier Conference championship with a win.
Howard and Dodge both moved to Ashland prior to last season. Dodge says he never felt entirely comfortable at Central Washington. Howard, a Grants Pass native, came from Florida, where he coached Tim Tebow.
"Central was great, but at the end of the year it wasn't the place for me," says Dodge, who first caught wind of SOU after talking with a former high school teammate who was going to be a freshman here.
Dodge called Howard.
"It was the second kind of phone call I've got like that in my career," Howard recalls. "When I took the Nease (High) job (in Florida), a young fellow named Tim Tebow called. And so building the program goes hand in hand with finding the gunslinger. So Tebow came to me and won the state title. Dodge came here and all of a sudden we are leading the nation in scoring, we are leading the nation in total offense and we're playing for a conference title on Saturday."
The team went 5-5 in 2011. When preseason camp began, eight quarterbacks were competing for the Raiders' starting job, with Dodge No. 8 on the list. But after an 0-3 start, Howard called upon Dodge, who hasn't missed a start since.
"When I took this job, I knew we wanted to be exciting, we wanted to be wide open, and we needed a gunslinger to do it," Howard says.
He's got one now.
Taking a note from the popular comedy film Talladega Nights, Howard refers to his system as the "Ricky Bobby" offense.
"We are going to try to play the game as fast as humanly possible," Fasnacht says. "We have the need for speed."
With proven power and accuracy, Dodge has been given the keys to the car at SOU. Each possession, he makes split-second decisions after the play is signaled in, based on how many defenders are stacked in the box. Poise amid the storm is essential.
"He is the master of that," Howard says. "He is really calm, cool and collected."
The dagger in Dodge's arsenal is the deep shot, which Howard defines simply as a pass that gains a good bit of yardage. Howard says Dodge took 18 against Carroll and completed 16. The momentum that the heaves create, Howard adds, can not be underestimated.
"The momentum they create is uncanny," Howard says. "I've done research and some schools attempt that many deep passes in an entire season."
For SOU, it's a typical day on the job.
"We'll take shots on second and short just to keep them on their toes," McKenzie says.
Potential recruits and coaches have taken notice. Howard says he receives 30 to 50 emails a day from athletes around the country interested in playing for him. He speaks with Division I coaches often. At Florida, he got to know Urban Meyer, who was recruiting Tebow. He shared ideas with Rich Rodriguez when Rodriguez was at Tulane. Here, he's bouncing ideas around with UO head coach Chip Kelly.
"We actually run more plays than Oregon," adds Howard, who also coached at Oregon Tech. "We're sort of creating our own little Oregon here."
Credit Spread Around
On Tuesdays, Dodge participates in a pass-under-pressure, or PUP, drill. The offensive line has kept him upright all season long, allowing just one sack. Dodge has plenty of time and space to find his top receivers, McKenzie and Patrick Donahue. Both excel at hauling in deep throws in a hurry.
McKenzie has 1,215 receiving yards, the most in SOU history. His 14 TDs are two more than the previous record. Donahue has a school-record 78 receptions, with McKenzie's 68 close behind.
"Everyone wants to be a play-maker in this offense," Dodge says.
The system, the quarterback, the linemen and the receivers make for the perfect storm.
"It's easy to say you want to take shots, but it's easy to drop back and get sacked and throw to the wrong guy or an incomplete pass," Howard says. "That really doesn't do you any good. You are punting after three plays. We have the guys to do it."
The players love the idea of going deep, Dodge says. The trick is getting used to it. Donahue transferred before last season from Glendale Community College and didn't grasp the offense until the ninth week.
"When I got here I was dog tired," says Patrick, a senior from Los Angeles. "The offense was mind boggling. I was all over the place."
Adds Howard: "It's no different than a biology or science class."
To catch up, Donahue, McKenzie and many of their teammates improved their stamina during the offseason. Donahue returned home only for the Fourth of July during the summer.
"I can go fast, but it's not how fast you can go one play," Donahue says. "It's how fast you can go on multiple plays."
Now, he's like Dodge: a player who can adjust on the fly.
"There is never just one route you run," Patrick says. "When a backer does this, you do this. If a corner does that, you do the opposite. I feel like the offense is one now."
The receivers' comfort level is evident.
"That is the bonus of this season," says McKenzie, a senior from Red Bluff, Calif. "We all know the playbook and know what to expect and where to go for certain routes."
Dodge continues to do his part to get better, too.
"Not all players go to that level where they get up at 6 or 7 or 8 o'clock on Sundays, come in and break film down before he goes to church," Howard says of Dodge.
Howard and Fasnacht worked together in Florida, where they guided Nease to a 76-23 overall record and broke 30 school records. They won a state title with Tebow in 2005.
"But (Dodge) is the best quarterback I've ever been around as far as talent level and being a student of the game," Fasnacht says.
Off the field, Dodge is easy-going and grounded, teammates say. He's funny — well, "he's funny sometimes," Donahue says. "He's not as funny as he thinks, but he's a cool guy."
Dodge recently visited a local pizza parlor with his parents. Upon entering, he observed members of the 1962 Raider squad that was inducted into the SOU Hall of Fame last month. The former players whom Dodge chatted with came away impressed with his attitude, SOU alumni director Mike Beagle says.
"He's kind of old-fashioned," Beagle says. "A great kid."
The encounter made Dodge think about his own future, which seems to be moving as fast as a jet streaking across the sky.
"It was crazy knowing that 40 years from now I'll be doing the same thing," he says. "This is going to be a special year and I feel like we are gonna be the team that comes back in 40 years and celebrates our reunion and gets in the Hall of Fame."
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email firstname.lastname@example.org