When Ashland's Ryne Robitz injured his hip against Churchill on Sept. 20, his sophomore backup Mason Dow knew he would be called upon to fill the void.
Those expecting to see a dip in the Grizzlies' run production instead witnessed the exact opposite, revealing depth in the AHS backfield as yet another team strength, one that the third-ranked Grizzlies will try to exploit again during Friday's homecoming game against Willamette.
"I had a few runs before that," Dow said, "but when (Robitz) went down, there was just a little trigger that clicked off in my brain and I knew that it was my time to step up."
When/Where: 7 p.m. Friday at Walter A. Phillips Field.
At Stake: With a win, Ashland (7-0, 4-0 MWL) can clinch no worse than a tie for the Midwestern League championship. The Grizzlies can clinch a MWL title outright with a win and a Springfield loss.
Ground pound: Running backs Ryne Robitz, Mason Dow and Mason Montgomery, along with quarterback Danial White, lead a rushing attack that averages 196 yards per game and has scored 28 touchdowns in seven games.
Facing a Springfield team that at the time was tied with Ashland atop the Midwestern League standings at 2-0, the 5-foot-9, 165-pound slasher rushed 16 times for 51 yards to help the Grizzlies build a 28-7 lead en route to a crucial 34-28 victory. The Grizzlies (7-0, 4-0 MWL) ran for 183 yards that night — 122 by senior quarterback Danial White.
"It was definitely one of the bigger games of our season," Dow said, "and that week I was sick, but I was focusing on preparing like I never had before. I was just really intense in practice."
A week later at North Eugene, Dow exploded for 130 yards on only 10 carries and also had a 26-yard touchdown reception. By the time the Grizzlies polished off the Highlanders 56-6, the only real questioned that remained was how Ashland would divvy up the carries once Robitz returned the following week. Also figuring into the equation was fullback Mason Montgomery, who rushed for 70 yards and two touchdowns on seven carries against North Eugene.
Turns out two was great for Ashland, but when it comes to running backs three has been even better. Last week against Sutherlin, Ashland rushed for 172 yards on 19 carries, an average of 9.1 yards per rush. The elusive Robitz returned from his hip pointer injury to lead the way, going for 91 yards and a touchdown on only four carries, while Dow added 24 yards and Montgomery 20 yards and a touchdown.
Robitz leads Ashland's three-headed monster with 446 yards rushing and six touchdowns, but Dow (299 yards, three TDs) and Montgomery (178 yards, three TDs) give Ashland a potent combination that the dual-threat White (322 yards, seven TDs) makes even tougher to defend. As a team, Ashland has rushed for 1,569 yards at a 6.4 yards per run clip and 28 touchdowns.
"I think it's great to have that kind of depth, to know that you can shift gears from one back to the other," Ashland head coach Charlie Hall said. "If one guy gets tired, the other guy starts carrying the ball. It's going to be really important as we go down the road, because a guy that's going to touch the ball 15 to 25 times a game, he gets nicked up and then you've got another good guy to go right behind him that you insert into the plan."
The Grizzlies have even experimented with playing Robitz and Dow together — a package they unveiled for the first time against Sutherlin. Expect to see more of that over the next two weeks.
"I think it's kind of cool having the diversity that we have," said Montgomery, who also leads the Grizzlies' defense from the middle linebacker position with 65 tackles. "Every guy has their strength and it's cool to be able to use that."
Ashland's balanced, big-play running game also has the added benefit of making life a little easier for White. The senior signal-caller has taken full advantage and is enjoying his best year as a Grizzly, completing 61 percent of his passes for 1,285 yards and 15 touchdowns with only three interceptions.
"It's not always about the big run," Robitz said. "I think the running game really opens up other opportunities in the passing game because if the defense has to bring some people into the box we can just throw right over them, which we've done pretty well."
The Grizzlies may try to do just that early and often against Willamette (2-5, 1-4), which allows 36 points per game, making it the second most porous defense in the league. Ashland scores 41.6 points per game.
If the Grizzlies win and Springfield falls to Marist, the Grizzlies will clinch their first Midwestern title before next week's regular season finale at Eagle Point.
It's possible that Ashland could lose Friday and still finish the night with no worse than a co-MWL title under its belt, but as Hall points out the Grizzlies are playing for more than a league trophy this year, and the higher the Grizzlies finish in the final OSAA power rankings the better chance they have of getting a play-in bye and hosting a playoff game (or two). As it stands now, the Grizzlies, one of only two undefeated teams in 5A football, are No. 5 in the OSAA rankings. A top eight finish will give the Grizzlies a free pass to the round of 16 and a first-round home game. A top four finish equals two home games, provided they make it that far.
"I think our approach right now is we need to really ramp up for whatever's going to happen in the postseason," Hall said. "We've got to take care of these next two games."