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Raiders to face big, bad Azusa

Southern Oregon head coach Jeff Olson won't go so far — as to label Saturday's game against Azusa Pacific a "must win."

After all, the Raiders have five games left on their schedule — following the fifth annual independent bowl (to be played at Raider Stadium), — including scrums against San Diego and Linfield.

Still, SOU's ninth-year head coach can't help but recognize — the game's significance.

Seventh-ranked Azusa (3-0) and 17th-ranked Southern Oregon — (2-1) are both, as usual, vying to finish as the top-ranked independent — team in NAIA football - a feat that will most likely yield an automatic — berth to the 16-team National Championship Series.

"Right now, certainly, the winner of this game has the — upper hand as far as independents go," Olson said. "But that hasn't always — been the case."

Olson points to the 1999 and 2000 seasons as prime examples. — The Raiders waxed the Cougars both years and still missed the playoffs.

SOU leads the series 4-1, but suffered its first loss — to Azusa last season. That 23-14 defeat in southern California all but — ended the Raiders' playoff hopes. It also perfectly illustrated just how — far Azusa had come.

"When we first started playing them in 1999, they just — threw the ball all over the place — and now they're predominantly a running — team," Olson said. "They want to control the line of scrimmage."

In other words, the Cougars have become a lot like SOU, — which rode powerful ground games to consecutive playoff appearances in — 2001 and '02.

A new look

But, changes in personnel have left the Raiders vulnerable — to big, strong defensive lines, and the offense has suffered as a result.

Southern is averaging just 96.3 rushing yards per game — this season, a far cry from the 218 it racked up on average only a year — ago. Bill Jolin, SOU's top rusher, has gained 200 yards on 51 attempts.

Somehow, that drop off has not cost the Raiders in another — statistic Olson considers very important to his team's ultimate success: — time of possession. Despite being outgained 420-289 overall on the ground, — SOU is winning the time of possession battle 31:31 to 28:29.

The Raiders' much improved defense probably deserves most — of the credit for that. While SOU is gaining just 287 yards per game, — it's holding opponents to 282, including just 142 through the air. Linebackers — are flying to the ball and making plays, and defensive backs are knocking — down passes.

For the first time in years, defense is a strength, not — a weakness, in Raiderland, a fact that makes Olson - a former defensive — back - smile.

"We've been playing very well (on defense)," he said.

'D' tested —

That Raider 'D' will receive perhaps its stiffest test — of the young season Saturday, when Azusa rolls into town packing a 6-foot-2, — 235-pound weapon by the name of Ben Buys. The senior All-American tailback — is averaging about 110 yards per game rushing and headlines a balanced — Cougar offense that's gaining 347 per contest, including 191 on the ground.

Junior Sean Davis will start at quarterback for Azusa. — He's completed 39 of 73 passes for 469 yards and two touchdowns. Davis' — favorite target is Jon Miller, who has 12 receptions for 132 yards and — one TD.

While the Cougars have run rampant over opposing defenses, — their three victims - San Diego, Olivet Nazarene and Humboldt State - — have had no such luck. Azusa has allowed just 208 yards of total offense — per game, including a minuscule 33.3 on the ground. Not coincidentally, — the Cougars are dominating the time of possession battle, 34 to 26.

Full steam ahead —

As impressive as the numbers and the game film verifying — them are, neither will lead to a drastic change in SOU's game plan.

The Raiders will try to establish the run, pure and simple.

"This is our style," Olson said. "Last year, we jumped — out to a 14-0 lead (against Azusa) and we didn't finish it. Our style — is what's gotten us to this point and we're not going to change."

If SOU's ground game sputters, the Raiders will call on — senior quarterback Brandon Griffith to open up the passing game. Griffith — has completed 53 of 89 passes for 573 yards, three touchdowns and five — interceptions.

The game kicks off at 6 p.m. and will be aired locally — on KCMX (880-AM).