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Fifth-ranked Raiders come back home to face No. 14 Azusa Pacific

ASHLAND ' When fifth-ranked Southern Oregon and 14th-ranked Azusa Pacific meet Saturday night at Raider Stadium, something has to give.

The Raiders (4-1) enter the 6 p.m. tilt having won three straight games and their past seven regular-season home contests.

At 5-0, the Cougars have equaled the best start in school history, including three straight wins on the road.

Beyond those streaks, however, the biggest carrot on the stick for both programs will be the right to pronounce itself the top-ranked Independent team in NAIA football. That right, along with a top-16 ranking in the final poll next month, qualifies the respective school for the NAIA Championship Series.

Although Azusa Pacific won the NAIA title in 1998, it's been the Raiders who have reigned supreme the past three years. SOU is 3-0 against the Cougars, outscoring Azusa 137-56 during that span.

Last year, the Raiders posted their fourth-highest scoring output in school history and pinned the Cougars with their most lopsided setback since 1966, 64-21.

Even though we've beaten them, says SOU coach Jeff Olson, in two of those years we still didn't get into the national playoffs. So there's no guarantee, but certainly the winner (Saturday) should have a leg up on the playoffs, that's for sure.

While history appears to be on SOU's side, Azusa Pacific is a much different team now than in the past. Thanks to sophomore running back Ben Buys, the Cougars feature a more balanced attack, similar to the Raiders.

The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder has helped Azusa average 179 yards per game on the ground to complement a 244-yard average through the air. SOU averages 215 on the ground and 201 through the air.

Buys also leads the country in scoring with 12 touchdowns, including four last week in Azusa's 35-22 home victory over Humboldt State.

Humboldt State has lost twice to SOU, 27-17 and 20-10.

Azusa also features third-year starting quarterback Luke Winslow, who ranks 10th in the country for total offense on 73-of-118 passing for 1,175 yards and 10 TDs. The school's all-time leading passer has thrown only one interception this season but has struggled against SOU, coughing up five interceptions.

Winslow's prime targets include 6-2 senior Frankie Tapia, who has 29 receptions for 405 yards and three TDs, and junior Nate Farris, whose sprinter speed has helped him average 24.6 yards per reception.

SOU counters with a defense that has allowed about 214 yards per game over its past three contests.

The Raiders also will get a boost with the return of All-American tailback Dusty McGrorty, who sat out last week's 42-0 win over Montana State-Northern to mend a sprained knee.

In McGrorty's absence, Brandon White piled up 101 yards and a score on 19 carries, while junior quarterback Dan Woodward finished with a career-high 247 yards on 21-for-33 passing with two TDs.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail