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Ashland to face stout Caveman `D'

Grants Pass is 2-0. Ashland is 0-2.

The Cavemen lead the Southern Oregon Conference in almost every statistical category, including total offense, total defense, scoring offense and scoring defense.

The Grizzlies? They've scored all of nine points -- total -- in their two games.

But don't tell Grants Pass coach Tom Blanchard that his squad deserves to be a big favorite when the teams square off Friday night (7:30) at Walter A. Phillips Field in Ashland.

Favorite? I would think we'd be the underdog, Blanchard says. Our track record against them is very poor. They've whipped us pretty much every year.

While it's true that Blanchard's teams have defeated the Grizzlies only once in 13 tries since he became the head coach at Grants Pass in 1986, the Cavemen look to have their best team since they won the SOC championship in 1994 -- the year they beat the Grizz.

Led by a ferocious defense that has allowed just 78 yards and three points per game, the Cavemen have barely worked up a sweat in charging to 31-0 and 57-6 victories over Crook County and Klamath Union.

But just how good the Cavers are isn't truly known because they haven't been tested.

We'll find out exactly what we're made of these next two weeks, says Blanchard in alluding to Ashland and a matchup the following week against Roseburg. It's time to buckle up the chin straps nice and tight.

Regardless of who they play, the Cavers' defense will give up ground grudgingly. Not only do they boast the top inside linebacking duo in the conference in Len Nunaz and Matt Major, one of the top defensive ends in Jake Zeliff and one of the premier tackles in 6-foot-6, 300-pound Mike DeLaGrange, but their secondary -- led by cornerbacks Gabe Baree and Rob Lesher -- might be second to none in the SOC.

All told, the Cavemen return eight starters on defense from a year ago when they went 6-3 and tied for second in the SOC.

I don't think anyone would argue that we've got a good defense, says Blanchard, whose team is ranked No. 12 in this week's Class 4A state poll. We've got some size, we've got very good team speed and these boys will hit you.

And I'm very thankful our secondary has some guys who've been around a while. I don't care what Ashland's passing game has generated to this point -- it always has and always will scare the daylights out of me.

GP's question mark going into the season was at quarterback, but junior Nathen Olson has kept the critics quiet by completing 14-of-29 passes for 238 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in the Cavers' two games.

He's a good athlete and he's very bright, says Blanchard of Olson. And he's had the luxury of getting his feet wet against teams we had no trouble beating.

He's a pretty confident young man right now.

GP's biggest weapon, however, has been tailback Brandon Hamada, the No. — rusher in the SOC with 345 yards and five touchdowns. The 5-7, 160-pound speedster is averaging 8.6 yards per carry.

He (Hamada) reminds me a lot of the Japanese backs we faced, Ashland coach Jim Nagel says. He's very quick and very shifty.''

The defending state champion Grizzlies are desperately trying to turn around what thus far has been a nightmarish season. Ashland's losses have come against a former No. — team (Roseburg) and the current No. — team (Marshfield) on the road.

That's no disgrace, but the Grizzly offense has thus far been a shell of its former self. Ashland has scored just one touchdown in its two games and is averaging a paltry 165.5 yards per game, next-to-last in the SOC.

Sophomore quarterback Mike Allen, who engineered a nice drive and capped it off with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ben Thurman last week, is expected to make his third straight start.

Nagel believes Allen is on the brink of blossoming, and that a supportive crowd might put him over the hump.

All he needs to do now is throw the ball as well in games as he has in practice, Nagel says. The other night he threw the ball as well as any quarterback we've had.

As a young kid, Mike sometimes forgets the stuff he's learned and resorts to his instincts during a game. Hopefully, he'll settle down Friday night.

Zach Hassell, who started the season as Ashland's No. — quarterback before suffering a severely sprained ankle in the Grizzlies' 21-20 exhibition victory over the Japanese All-Stars, continues to be sidelined.

However, several other Grizzlies have recovered from nagging injuries, including halfback Kris Pavilionis, fullback Mac Contreras, wide receiver Jesse Jones and center John Croce. The Grizzlies are trying to avoid their first 0-3 start since 1984, when they started out 0-6 on the way to a 1-8 record in Nagel's second yer at Ashland.

The kids understand that we've played two good teams and there's still a lot of football to be played, Nagel says. They also know that if they win Friday they can turn the season around and maybe forget about what happened the first two weeks in September.