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Raiders face stiff test in Azusa Pacific

ASHLAND ' Jeff Olson won't know for a couple months whether Saturday night's game will be a defining moment for his 17th-ranked Southern Oregon football team, but it has all the makings for that possibility.

Be it a leg up toward a playoff berth, a win over a respected rival or a chance to show the nation the Raiders are still a team to be reckoned with, a lot will be on the line as SOU takes on seventh-ranked Azusa Pacific at Raider Stadium. Kickoff is 6 p.m.

This game has definitely got some meaning to it, says Olson, in his ninth year guiding SOU. It put us on the map when we beat them in 1999, and for the last five years it's been one of the two of us representing the independents in the playoffs.

It's the independent status of both teams that makes for such drama when SOU and Azusa Pacific square off. In an NAIA Championship Series dominated by conference champions and runners-up, the only chance an independent has of making it into the 16-team field is if it ranks highest among its peers and is in the top 16 overall.

It isn't always the team who wins this game that goes (to the playoffs), Olson adds, but you certainly have the upper hand.

— Despite owning a 4-1 series advantage dating back to SOU's 42-31 win in 1999, the Raiders (2-1) would appear to be the underdog this time around thanks to the exploits of the Cougars' rushing attack and their equally proficient defense.

Azusa Pacific's third-year starting tailback Ben Buys is once again punishing defenses with his 6-foot-2, 235-pound frame to the tune of 110 yards per game. The All-American tailback rumbled for 243 yards and two touchdowns on 38 carries in the Cougars' 23-14 win over SOU last season.

He ranks right up there with the top kids we've had here, no question about that, Olson says in comparing Buys to SOU greats Dusty McGrorty and Griff Yates. They want to win the line of scrimmage and control the ball with him, and so far they've been able to do it.

The silver lining for SOU, however, is that Buys will be running into the heart of the Raiders' defense in linemen Josh Redeau-Clark, Dustin Mari, Willis Cooley, et. al.

This will be a team unlike any other we've seen so far in that they will run right at us with their strength against our strength, says Olson. (Buys) really runs well going north and south, so we need to do our best to make him go sideways if at all possible.

The Cougars (3-0) have shown a knack for that potential thus far on defense, ranking seventh in total defense after allowing 208.7 yards per game and a fourth-best tally of 33.3 yards rushing.

In comparison, SOU ranks 16th for total defense (282.3 ypg) and has essentially posted two shutouts in the Raiders' first three games. The lone score posted by Si Tanka Huron in the season opener and Rocky Mountain last week came off interception returns for a touchdown.

That's where we've shot ourselves in the foot, Olson says of SOU's turnover-prone offense. If we can minimize or have an error-free game on offense and win the field position battle, then let's let the fur fly up front (on the line of scrimmage) and see what happens.

To complement his defense, Olson says he's looking for the Raiders to be more consistent on offense and develop an identity they've lacked to date.

In last week's win, SOU moved the pocket around to take some pressure off Brandon Griffith and the senior quarterback responded by completing 21 of 37 passes for 216 yards. His chief target was senior Bobby Poeltl, who posted a career-best 11 catches for 121 yards.

We're a team that will move the chains rather than be the high-powered scoring machine we've been the past few years, says Olson.

But if it's 13-7 and we come out on top, that's fine with me.

The Cougars have gone 20-3 since 2002 and enter Ashland winners of seven straight regular-season contests, including last Saturday's 17-10 triumph over Humboldt State, which trounced SOU 32-0 the previous week.

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