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SOU to face formidable PLU

ASHLAND — The schedule indicates the NAIA football playoffs don't begin for a couple of weeks.

Southern Oregon University coach Jeff Olson begs to differ, what with Pacific Lutheran University coming to town to face his team for a — p.m. homecoming contest Saturday.

To be the best, you must beat the best, Olson said. This is a playoff game for us. We have to win this game to stay in the (NAIA) playoff hunt.

Following a 2-3 start, including a discouraging triple-overtime loss at Willamette and a narrow home setback to archrival Western Oregon, the Raiders have won two straight and enter Saturday's game in prime NAIA playoff position.

Southern Oregon exploded for a season-high 49 points at Montana State-Northern last Saturday and jumped two spots in the all-important NAIA rankings this week to No. 15.

But it was another game, Menlo College's 47-37 upset of 22nd-ranked Azusa Pacific in Los Angeles, that had even more impact on SOU's postseason hopes.

The Azusa loss makes SOU the NAIA's top-ranked independent team this week. If they keep that position over Azusa and 25th-ranked Mount Scenario and remain in the top 20, the Raiders would qualify for their first postseason action since 1987.

Otherwise, SOU needs a top-16 ranking for a chance to obtain an at-large berth.

PLU makes it that much more of a challenge.

The defending NCAA Division III champion Lutes are 6-1 overall and ranked No. 8 nationally.

They've won three straight and must win their remaining two games to be assured of the school's 17th postseason berth since 1979.

PLU might the most talented team we've seen this year, said Olson, and they've been blowing people away. Their players have the mind-set to expect to win every game, regardless of the circumstances. And they have a quarterback (Chad Johnson) who might be the best in the country at this level.

Last year when the two teams met, Pacific Lutheran won 47-23, overcoming a 9-0 deficit by scorching the Raider defense for 412 yards and seven touchdowns.

SOU's defense ranks seventh nationally in defending the pass (135.0 per game) and 15th in total defense (273.3 yards per game) but will receive its most formidable test this week.

PLU leads NCAA Division III for total offense (540 yards per game) and ranks third for scoring (46.3) and seventh for passing (328.7).

Since a 38-28 home loss to Linfield that snapped a 13-game win streak, PLU is averaging 57 points per outing, including victories over Eastern Oregon (61-36), Lewis & Clark (62-6) and, most recently, a 48-12 home steamrolling of Northwest Conference rival Willamette, a squad that topped Southern in triple-overtime on Oct. 7.

Johnson, the grandson of coach Forrest Frosty Westering, is second nationally in passing efficiency. He's completed 143-for-212 passes for 2,210 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Sophomore receiver Kyle Brown (39 for 616, 8 TDs) is Johnson's favorite target.

The ground game is led by freshman Aaron Binger (63 carries, 549 yards, 7 TDs).

Westering, in his 29th year, has a career record of 239-59-5.

For SOU, freshman tailback Dusty McGrorty enters the game needing 45 yards to become only the sixth player in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. He is fifth in the NAIA for rushing (136.4) and is seventh for scoring (13 touchdowns, an 11.1 game scoring average).

Nick Daniken, a former Crater High star, ascended to No. 4 in the NAIA with a 31.4 average per kick off return, and senior defenders Nathan Mart and Reavous Thomas rank eighth and ninth, respectively, in interceptions.

Thomas had three last week.