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No. 22 Raiders ready for first test at Menlo

ASHLAND — A 2013 season that didn’t always go according to plan means the Southern Oregon University football team will have to earn respect if it wants to be among the top teams in the NAIA rankings, but that doesn’t mean everyone isn’t already asking the question: Who’s going to stop SOU in 2014?

The 22nd-ranked Raiders hope an answer isn’t found at Menlo College, where they will commence regular-season festivities today in a nonleague matchup with the Oaks in Atherton, Calif. Kickoff is set for noon at Connor Field.

It’s the only opportunity the Raiders will have to tune up for their Sept. 6 Frontier Conference clash with No. 2 Carroll College in Ashland, and they’d like it to play out differently than last year’s opener — a 35-30 loss to Rocky Mountain in Grants Pass. Though Rocky would eventually have to cough up that win due to use of an ineligible player, it set a sour tone as SOU went on to drop a costly Week 2 game at Montana Western. The Raiders finished with a record of 7-4, and had to settle for a second-place tie with Rocky in the conference standings at 7-3.

With the return of nearly an entire offensive unit that led the nation in yardage for a second straight year and a defense boosted by athleticism, fourth-year head coach Craig Howard believes the Raiders are in better position now.

“We started hungry in the spring, worked out very hard this summer and we’re further along in the preseason than we’ve ever been since I got here,” Howard said. “We’re more advance than needing to teach them how to just line up correctly. Preseason camp is always a grind but we got a lot more accomplished and tried to keep them fresh.”

Menlo, an independent that went 5-5 last season, got a head start on the Raiders by opening its season last week. The Oaks lost on their home field, 45-27 to Eastern Oregon, but led 27-23 going into the fourth quarter.

The Oaks and Raiders have eight meetings in their history with the Raiders winning six of them, including two most recently in 2011.

“It’s great to have them back on our schedule and a tough challenge for us,” Howard said. “They got a game under their belts, and I’ve always believed that teams make their biggest improvement from the first game to the second game, so we’ll see what happens. But they have excellent tight ends, good skill receivers and excellent linemen.”

ON THE OAKS: Menlo made strides in 2013 under first-year coach Mark Grieb, who will be attempting to lead the program to a record above .500 for the first time since 2003. The Oaks return starting quarterback Wade Dawkins after he averaged 144 passing yards with 14 touchdowns and five interceptions, and most of a defensive secondary that held opposing quarterbacks to 174 yards per game. Linebacker Cameron Grad is also back after getting in on 61 tackles with 5.5 sacks last season.

Of concern for the Oaks is that they allowed Eastern Oregon quarterback Zach Bartlow to throw for 391 yards and four TDs last week, and the Mountaineers to gain 574 yards to Menlo’s 374. That may not bode well for their chances against SOU quarterback Austin Dodge and company.

Hawkins completed 18 of 33 attempts for 228 yards against the Mountaineer defense, helping receiver Brandon Soohoo accumulate 134 yards, but also threw two interceptions. Nine different Menlo backs contributed to 27 rushes and 169 yards on the ground.

HISTORY LESSON: The second win of the Howard era came at 24th-ranked Menlo in 2011, 31-17, and the Raiders ended the season with a 25-19 win over the Oaks in Ashland. Dodge went 22-for-32 with 283 yards and three TD passes in the finale. He was also sacked five times, and only endured seven sacks the entire next season.

In 23 games since they last saw Menlo, the Raiders have not scored less than 30 points.

SOU was held under 40 points in the first two games of 2013. They went on to score over 50 points the next six weeks.

COACH HOWARD SAYS: On the offense: “I guess what I want to see is that the offense operates at the tempo we expect right away. We want to do everything we can to put the pedal to the medal and run more plays than any team in America. I think we’ve got the best quarterback in the country and he’s at the top of his game, but we don’t think he’s a finished product yet. We also have an outstanding offensive line, and since we’ve been here it’s been about developing that group because that’s the hardest position to play in college football.”

On the defense: “I want us to adhere to our philosophy of swarming to the football and making big plays. We’ve got an interesting blend and I think we’re more athletic than we’ve been in four years. We’ll rely on our senior leaders and try to play as many people as we can, because now we have the luxury of some depth.”

AROUND THE FRONTIER: Besides Eastern Oregon, one other game of interest to the Raiders went down last week: Montana Western defeated Montana Tech, 38-6. This week in conference action, No. 9 Rocky Mountain plays at Dickinson State and Montana State-Northern is at Montana Tech.

Southern Oregon University head coach Craig Howard talks to his team before the start of practice earlier this month. MT FILE PHOTO