Don't tell Craig Howard that his Southern Oregon Raiders have already exceeded expectations by qualifying for the playoffs two years after stumbling through a 3-7 season.
He doesn't buy it, because his expectations were never the same as the Frontier Conference coaches who tabbed the Raiders fifth in a preseason poll.
"We're still hungry," Howard said following Tuesday's practice at U.S. Cellular Community Park, where the 10th-ranked Raiders have been preparing for Saturday's first-round game at No. 8 St. Ambrose. "Our goal was not to win the Frontier Conference; we never, ever said that. Our goal has always been to win the national title. "…I love these boys and I want to keep coaching them, so every week is a gift."
When: 1 p.m. Central (11 a.m. Pacific).
Where: At Brady Street Stadium, Davenport Iowa.
Live video: None.
By the numbers
PPG 33.1 54.4
Opp PPG 16.3 32.5
RYPG 164.4 193.6
PYPG 273 463.4
Comp-Att-Int 203-324-8 321-487-7
YPG 437.4 657.0
Sacks By 26 26
Def. Int 11 11
RYPG — Rushing yards per game.
PYPG — Passing yards per game.
And it may be the gift that keeps on giving if Southern Oregon (8-2) can maintain its heart-pounding scoring pace against St. Ambrose (9-1), which also hasn't lost since Sept. 29. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. local time (11 a.m. Pacific) at Brady Street Stadium in Davenport, Iowa.
The game is one of eight first-rounders in the 16-team Series. The others, all scheduled for Saturday, are: Bethel (Tenn.) at Georgetown (Ky.); Ottowa (Kan.) at Missouri Valley (Iowa); Montana Tech at Morningside (Iowa); William Penn (Iowa) at Saint Xavier (Ill.); Northwestern (Iowa) at Marian; Baker (Kan.) at Saint Francis (Ind.); and MidAmerica Nazarene (Kan.) at Cumberlands (Ky.). Quarterfinal pairings and game sites will be announced Sunday morning.
The Raiders head to Davenport today — via charter flight — as hot as any team in the nation, having beat three top 25-ranked teams over the last six weeks by an average score of 55-33. That includes last week's 46-28 thrashing of then No. 7-ranked Montana Tech — a game Southern Oregon led 34-0 before taking its foot off the gas.
In fact, the Raiders have grown accustomed to decelerating in the second half in the name of sportsmanship after consistently running and gunning their way to huge leads behind an offense that's averaging 54.4 points and an all-time record 657 yards per game. The bad news for St. Ambrose, and perhaps the rest of the NAIA, is that the Raiders truly believe that there's room for improvement and enter Saturday's game with a bit of a chip on their shoulder.
"We haven't hit a peak yet," said SOU quarterback Austin Dodge, a player-of-the-year candidate after passing for 4,325 yards and 36 touchdowns during the regular season. "We've seen glimpses. Seventy-six points against Montana Western, 68 against Eastern Oregon. But we haven't hit our peak and Montana Tech was a solid win but we didn't play our best football. So we're still searching for that perfect game."
Howard says the Raiders will take the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it approach into SOU's first playoff game since 2002. That means Southern Oregon will continue to hustle up to the line of scrimmage after every play, forcing the opposing defense to quickly determine assignments or else risk giving up a huge gain (against Montana Tech, the Raiders scored four touchdowns of 60 yards or more). The no-huddle strategy has become commonplace in college and high school football in recent years, but few teams can match SOU's pace, the truest measure of which is probably plays run — the Raiders run an average of 91.5 plays per game; St. Ambrose, 72.4.
Most of those plays work, too. Incredibly, the Raiders have two 1,300-yard receivers in Cole McKenzie (1,357, 15 touchdowns) and Patrick Donahue (1,305, seven touchdowns) and a 1,000-yard rusher in Manny Barragan (1,046, 11 touchdowns).
"I want to turn a football game into a track meet," Howard said.
St. Ambrose, meanwhile, which allows 16.3 points per game while scoring 33.1, would like to stick to football.
"They're certainly good at what they do," said St. Ambrose head coach Mike Magistrelli, the Mid-States Football Association Coach of the Year. "They do a great job of keeping the tempo up. It's very impressive to see and it's not something you see every day, so it's a great challenge for us defensively. We've just got to play good assignment football, we've got to tackle well in space and not give them any easy ones and freebies."
Ditto for the Southern Oregon defense, which will also have its hands full against a high-powered offense led by a quarterback who's been on fire all season. Eric Williamson, a junior out of Springfield, Ill., has passed for 2,676 yards and 34 touchdowns and was recently named the MSFA Player of the Year. That award easily could have gone to Williamson's favorite target, Zach Grant, who has an NAIA-leading 87 receptions for 1,132 yards and 16 touchdowns. No other St. Ambrose receiver has more than 23 receptions, so bottling up the 6-foot-1 Grant will be one of the top priorities for an SOU defense that's surrendering 283 yards passing per game.
"We better do a good job covering (Grant)," Howard said.
That assignment will go to either Dustin Fretwell or Josh Leff, who leads the Raiders with four interceptions.
The Fighting Bees can run the ball, too. Their two-headed ground attack of Cole Kelly and Anton Wilkins has produced 1,200 yards rushing and nine touchdowns.
The Raiders will be gunning for their third national quarterfinal berth and first since 2002. They also will be aiming for their fourth consecutive road win since the double-overtime loss to Montana Tech.
"We're kind of road tested," Howard said.
"I love our chances in the playoffs," Donahue said. "In my mind, we're taking it all the way. Nobody wants to play us, that's how I feel. Nobody wants to play us."
Tidings sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org