DAYTONA BEACH — Craig Howard never doubted his plan would work at Southern Oregon, despite the fact history suggested otherwise.
He just wished he could have done it sooner.
The former coach at nearby Nease High School in Ponte Vedra Beach, where he won a state title with Tim Tebow in 2005, guided the Raiders to a 55-31 win over Marian (Indiana) Friday for the program’s first NAIA national title.
“This national championship will change Southern Oregon forever,” Howard said. “It’ll never be the same. And it’s a great thing for Southern Oregon University and the state of Oregon and the Frontier Conference.”
Howard was hired in 2011, taking over a program with one winning season in its previous eight. Southern Oregon failed to make the playoffs in 2013 and had never advanced beyond the quarterfinals in four previous attempts.
“I wanted to do it in Year 2,” Howard said. “We got in the quarterfinals. We got within 1 inch against Morningside. … That’s helped motivate us to get back here. Once you get here, you want to come back.”
In addition to a high-octane, spread offense, Howard also brought something else to the Raiders that offered hope: Austin Dodge.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound senior and NAIA national player of the year threw for 429 yards and three touchdowns Friday at Municipal Stadium, earning offensive player of the game honors and capping a record-setting career.
Dodge finishes as the NAIA’s career leader in passing yards (17,250), completions (1,253) and touchdowns (154).
“When I look for quarterbacks, I look for winners and leaders off the field,” Howard said. “Guys who have a special ‘it’ factor. Timmy Tebow had the ‘it’ factor and so does Austin Dodge.”
While it looked easy for much of the night, Marian did provide a few tense moments in the third quarter.
After trailing 38-10 at the break, the Knights (11-3) scored 14 unanswered points to pull within 38-24.
Dodge said, given how their offense operates, the Raiders (13-2) weren’t worried.
“Coach Howard and this coaching staff have really preached to this offense and this team that the longer we play, the better we get,” Dodge said. “And that really has held true.”
On the second play of the fourth quarter, Dodge hit Ryan Retzlaff for a 9-yard score that pushed the lead to 45-24. Retzlaff led Southern Oregon with 117 yards on five catches. Matt Retzlaff added 107 yards receiving. The two brothers are South Medford products.
Anthony Jones Jr., who had 17 catches for a school-record 234 yards and three touchdowns, gave Marian one last pulse. On their next offensive play, he took Hayden Northern’s pass and raced 75 yards to pay dirt.
Dodge didn’t flinch, however, leading a 12-play, 57-yard drive that ended with an Aldrick Rosas 38-yard field goal — his second of the game — and then sealed the win with a 36-yard strike to Dylan Young with 8:35 remaining that brought the game to its final score.
“A lot of people said don’t take this job because they’re on the road to dropping football,” said Howard, who grew up in nearby Grants Pass. “I went in there on a mission to come home and build a program with men of character and strength and honor. … I told them they were going to have three things when they graduated. They’re going to be a man of character, strength and honor, they’re going to have a diploma that will open doors for them, and they’re going to have a national championship ring.”
It was quite a journey for Dodge, the three-time Frontier Conference player of the year, who transferred from Central Washington and was the team’s eighth quarterback on the depth chart his first season.
He took over the job after the Raiders started 0-3 and has gone 33-11 since.
“The very first game Austin Dodge started as a freshman, he was in the film room the next morning trying to get better,” Howard said. “So, he’s been a great quarterback for us for four years. We could not have done this without him.”
While Dodge’s long passes set the tone early on, it was tailback Melvin Mason and the Southern Oregon defense that put points on the board.
Mason notched four first-half touchdowns, including a broken screen he took 64 yards to the house.
Julius Rucker, the defensive player of the game, scored the game’s first touchdown when he intercepted Northern and broke tackles for a 54-yard score.
“We just came out and coach told us that defense wins championships,” said Rucker. “We caused eight turnovers, got our offense on the field, left us on the sideline. From there, that was all we needed.”
Rucker finished with two interceptions, and Jaylenn Hart added three as Southern Oregon picked off a school-record six passes.
The game was a mixed bag for Marian’s signal caller. Northern set the school record with 495 passing yards, but coach Mark Henninger said winning with that many turnovers against this competition wasn’t going to happen.
“It’s big,” he said. “We probably left 21 points on the field in the first half. When you play against an offense that can be as explosive as Southern Oregon’s, the further you get behind, the harder it is.”
Friday’s game was the first held in Daytona Beach in the 59-year history of the event. It’s set to return for two more years and was played in front of 1,941 fans.