Southern Oregon head coach Craig Howard recognizes players during a pep talk at the end of a scrimmage. Howard guided the Raiders to the NAIA national quarterfinals last season, his second at the helm.

Raiders look to repeat last year's performance

They want to be super-duper fast. They want to make spectacular, highlight-worthy plays. They want to keep their opponents on edge, never knowing what to expect. And they want to get on and off the field as quickly as possible, with a goal of six plays or less.

And while those descriptions may also apply to that highly touted group on the other side of the ball, ultimately it's the Southern Oregon defense and its own quick-strike approach that may determine the Raiders' fate in 2013.

"Our guys on the defensive side of the football have a chip on their shoulder," SOU defensive coordinator Berk Brown said, "because one, this is considered an offensive school. And two, we dropped nine spots in the national poll and (two) spots in our conference poll and our guys are a little bit angry about it. And that's the best type of defense to coach — an angry defense."

The 14th-ranked Raiders will get their first chance to take out that anger on an opponent Saturday, when Rocky Mountain (1-0) pays a visit to Grants Pass' Mel Ingram Field for what is expected to be a Frontier Conference shootout. The two teams combined for 82 points (52-30, Rocky Mountain) and a mind-boggling 1,202 yards in their last meeting, SOU's only non-overtime loss of 2012. The second annual Kickoff Classic kicks off at 1 p.m.

Nine months removed from a Frontier Conference championship and a trip to the NAIA national quarterfinals the Raiders are looking to take the next step with a roster that's identical in key positions but retooled in others. Back is Frontier Conference offensive player of the year Austin Dodge (6-foot-3, 210 pounds), the quarterback who shattered SOU single-season records while passing for an NAIA-best 5,075 yards and 42 touchdowns as a sophomore.

The cannon-armed Dodge will drop back behind three of the five offensive linemen — tackles Drew Gibson (6-5, 282) and Jake Sullivan (6-3, 320) and guard-turned-center Max Proudfit (6-2, 290) — who started SOU's final game of 2012, but will have an entirely new crew of four starting receivers from which to chose from. That doesn't, however, take into account the return of tight end Clay Sierra, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound behemoth who's expected to become a bigger part of the Raiders' offense this year after making 24 catches for 329 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman.

Former South Medford star Matt Retzlaff (5-11, 180) will start in the slot and has received rave reviews for his performance in fall camp, while Teran Togia (6-1, 193) will man the other slot and Dylan Young (6-3, 195) and Sean McShane (5-11, 180) split out wide. Can that group possibly match the gaudy numbers put up by SOU last season, when the Raiders averaged 449 yards per game through the air and 14 yards per catch? Doubtful, but for a team that lost two 1,500-yard receivers in Cole McKenzie and Patrick Donahue to graduation, the Raiders don't sound too concerned about their ability to air it out.

"Obviously, losing the two guys on the outside, people think we're going to be missing that," SOU offensive coordinator Ken Fasnacht said, "but really, we're going to be very similar. We're still going to take our shots vertically, we're still going to force the outside issue and try to create one on one matchups and we're still going to have some fun trying to get the ball in space to athletes and let them play football."

Part of Fasnacht's confidence may stem from Dodge's grasp of SOU's no-huddle spread offense, and part of it may come from SOU's revamped backfield. Not that the Raiders struggled to run the ball last season — Manny Barragan, who graduated, did rush for 1,341 yards and 13 touchdowns — but sophomore Zach Marshall (5-9, 173) and redshirt freshman Melvin Mason (5-10, 205), plus true freshman Sean Tow (5-6, 175) will combine to give the Raiders more breakaway speed at running back than they had a year ago.

"We're unbelievably good at running back right now," Fasnacht said. "And, we might be a little more balanced as far as the running game is concerned, because with those guys we want to put the ball in their hands more often than just having one back back there. (Barragan) took most of the snaps last year. Now, three guys are going to do it and we trust all three."

Of course, the big question when it comes to just about any team that runs a pedal-to-the-medal no-huddle offense is this: can the defense hold up its end of the bargain and get off the field fast enough to allow all those offensive play-makers to blow open games.

In Rocky Mountain, the Raiders will face an opponent that could force SOU to answer that question. The Battlin' Bears proved as much on Sept. 8 of last year in Billings, Mont., where they torched the Raiders to the tune of 676 yards of total offense. Rocky Mountain, which beat Jamestown College 34-20 last Friday in the first college football game of the season, overcame an early 17-0 deficit against the Raiders by scoring 31 points in the second quarter.

"That was the worst second quarter I've every been involved with as a player or coach," Brown said. "So to be able to look back on that and show our guys this year that film of just the second quarter is a real motivator for our guys, because it wasn't anything schematic we were doing. We didn't play defensive football — we didn't run to the football, we didn't hit people like we should have and it showed. Over 300 yards of offense in one quarter is gross."

Brown is excited about the makeup of this year's defense, which includes five returning starters running a sort of 4-3/3-4 hybrid scheme that the Raiders hope will keep opponents off balance.

Expected to lead that defense will be a pair of returning starters — junior defensive end Daniel Breux (6-3, 240) and junior linebacker Heston Altenbach (6-2, 202) — along with senior Randy Tyler (5-11, 180), a "shutdown" cornerback who was ineligible last season.

Breux has the speed to bring pressure from the outside and the power to charge through the middle, while Altenbach relies more on his quickness and was the Raiders' second-leading tackler last season. Tyler's ability to lock down receivers may open the door for more blitzing opportunities, and SOU's other cornerback, senior Josh Leff (5-9, 190), led the Raiders with six interceptions last season.

"(Tyler) grew through the offseason and has become the type of guy we can put on an island and we can send some pressure at some people," Brown said.

Another potential defensive force is sophomore Michael Bibbee (6-3, 240), who transferred from Oregon State a year-and-a-half ago but was ineligible last season. Bibbee brings a massive frame and phenomenal athleticism to the outside linebacker position, but will see live game action for the first time in four years.

"He's going to be on the field for us, make no mistake about it," Brown said. "He's kind of our diamond in the rough kind of guy. We're keeping him in our back pocket, saying, 'Hey, here's a 6-3, 255-pound kid from Oregon State' who really people aren't expecting to see, so we're excited about him and just the amount of space he can make up."

Southern Oregon was ranked third in the Frontier Conference preseason coaches' poll and dropped nine spots from their No. 5 spring ranking in the NAIA top-25 preseason poll. Those falls did not go unnoticed by the Raiders, who are using the perceived slights as motivation to make another run at a Frontier Conference championship.

Head coach Craig Howard says the Raiders have the pieces to pull it off. After that, they plan on making a serious run at a national championship.

"I think we have a team that's capable of repeating," he said. "We just gotta stay healthy, we gotta stay hungry, we gotta stay humble and we gotta play each game one at a time. Those old sayings are all true — you want to be one and oh each week and you don't look past an opponent because every game in the Frontier Conference is a good opponent."

To reach Joe Zavala call 541-776-4469 or e-mail

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