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Raiders must right ship now, or sink into non-playoff abyss

Commentary

Few people hold the Southern Oregon football program in higher regard than I do for what the Raiders have accomplished the past few seasons.

Head coaches don't come more amiable than Jeff Olson, and that trait holds firm throughout his coaching staff.

But when your supposed best team in school history starts the season 0-3, there's reason for concern.

— Sure the NAIA Raiders have squared off against heady teams like Linfield (NCAA Div. III), Humboldt State (NCAA Div. II) and the University of San Diego (NCAA Div. I-AA), but that's the schedule SOU agreed upon heading into the 2003 campaign.

It was no surprise SOU would be tested early; it's only been a surprise at how low the Raiders' marks have turned out to be.

SOU's pass defense has been laughable, while the Raiders' perceived offensive juggernaut has done everything but light up the scoreboard.

The Raiders enter Saturday's game against Montana State-Northern allowing an average of 351.3 yards passing per game and 449.7 yards overall.

SOU's potent offense has done its part moving the ball up and down the field at a clip of 434.7 yards per game, but little of that has translated into points. The Raiders average 23.7 points per game, and that figure is somewhat skewed thanks to a 47-42 loss to Linfield in the season opener.

So where is the problem?

Certainly not at tailback, where senior All-American Dusty McGrorty leads the NAIA with an average of 199.3 yards rushing per game. In three games behind a steady offensive line, McGrorty has bruised his way to the tune of 598 yards on 83 carries ' good for a 7.2 average ' and six touchdowns.

Wide receiver Andrae Thurman, a transfer from the University of Arizona, has more than held his own as well, ranking second in the NAIA for receptions. Thurman has hauled in 26 passes for 438 yards to boost his average to 8.6 catches per game and 16.8 yards per catch.

Maybe the more telling number, however, is Thurman's one TD reception in three games. As a team, SOU only has 10 touchdowns, and one of those came off Thurman's kickoff return for a score against Linfield.

Part of that falls on the shoulders of senior quarterback Dan Woodward, who hasn't exactly had the kind of season he expected with so much talent surrounding him.

Woodward ranks 15th in the NAIA for passing at a clip of 232 yards per game, but he's only thrown for three scores, and his seven interceptions equals his entire total from 2002.

Those numbers have to turn around quick if SOU is to make the pollsters even consider the Raiders as a playoff contender again.

When you're a senior and a team captain, you always feel a sense of responsibility when your team's not doing well, says Woodward.

I love this team; I love all my fellow teammates, he adds. I wouldn't trade them for any other group. I cherish the fact that I get to go out with them every day and play football. They're good men and deserve better than 0-3. I just want to help get that bitter taste out of our mouths.

Leaning on the persona that has helped the Raiders become an NAIA powerhouse in recent years, Woodward is determined to meet his challenge head on.

I'm not climbing in a hole by any means, says the second-year starter. I know what I've got to do, and I just hope these guys will continue to follow me.

Key to Woodward's strategy is for the Raiders to step back and focus their attention on realizing their true capabilities.

We've got to redefine ourselves as far as what kind of team we're going to be, says Woodward. Are we going to fold when people start taking it to us, or are we going to start playing to the level we're capable of? It hurts to be 0-3, but we still have to line up on Saturday and get the job done.

With six games remaining on the schedule, Woodward admits it's must-win time for the Raiders. The only saving grace for SOU is that NAIA independents Azusa Pacific and Southern Nazarene, ranked eighth and 15th, respectively, remain on the slate.

While it's not in the Raiders' approach to take any team lightly ' and who can blame them this year ' Saturday's matchup with Montana State-Northern should give SOU a great opportunity to stretch its legs again.

Three weeks of confinement have left the Raiders on edge, and the Lights have certainly been hospitable over the past three seasons, losing to SOU by a combined score of 139-27.

But Saturday's outcome shouldn't be taken too much to heart. The real work starts next Saturday when SOU tackles Azusa. The main thing SOU can accomplish against the Lights is to get its tires back on the road.

After that, it's a treacherous path to the playoffs.

But hopefully it will be one that only slows to allow the NAIA pollsters to hop back on the Raiders' bandwagon, because anyone involved in the SOU program knows that the Raiders are too good of a team to not make the playoffs.

Now they just have to go out and prove it.

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