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Part II: This time, No. 4 SOU visits No. 3 Carroll

ASHLAND — Southern Oregon’s gripping upset of then-No. 2 Carroll back on Sept. 6 served as a launching pad that placed the Raiders among the NAIA’s top football teams.

It did not, apparently, convince a majority of NAIA Top 25 voters that the Raiders were the best team in the Frontier Conference. Fourth-ranked SOU (6-0, 5-0 Frontier) has been asked to prove that again at third-ranked Carroll (4-1, 4-1) in a venue that doesn’t typically lend itself to that type of ambition.

A sold-out crowd is expected at the 7,000-seat Nelson Stadium, where the Saints have won 55 of 57 over the last eight seasons, for Saturday’s game that will kick off at noon PST with conference and national implications.

“It is, for all intents and purposes, a championship game,” SOU head coach Craig Howard said. “We have great respect for our opponent and know it’s tough to beat them anywhere, but it’s even more challenging to do it in their house.”

The matchup is not the NAIA game of the week in title only. The Saints have already been a part of three of those, including the 38-35 loss at Ashland High, where the Raiders staged a second-half comeback with the game’s final 14 points.

In four games since that loss, the Saints allowed 39 points combined. They were especially merciless in last Saturday’s game of the week, a 55-7 shellacking at Eastern Oregon, which was then ranked 15th.

At the same time in Ashland, SOU was recording a 31-6 victory over Montana Western and improving to 6-0 for the first time in 47 years. A win Saturday would give the Raiders a two-game lead on the rest of the Frontier field with four to play.

The only Frontier championship Carroll didn’t win in the past 14 seasons was claimed by SOU and Montana Tech in 2012. With first place on the line in the third-to-last game of 2013, the Saints took out SOU 48-30 at Nelson Stadium.

BERK’S BOYS: The SOU defense is playing at a different level in Berk Brown’s second year as coordinator, and it got to show off again in the first game played at Raider Stadium of 2014 last week. Montana Western didn’t score until 9:42 remained and ultimately mustered only a couple of late field goals and 278 yards of offense (4.2 per play).

SOU opponents have scored on 18 of 70 drives (25.7 percent) that started in their own territory. The Raiders, meanwhile, have scored on 33 of 63 drives (52.4 percent) that started in their territory.

Montana Western only marched into the red zone twice, but nine of 17 red-zone trips have ended in touchdowns against the Raider defense compared to 17 of 23 for the SOU offense.

ANOTHER RECORD: Raider quarterback Austin Dodge set the NAIA milestone Saturday total career yards gained, pushing his total to 13,982 to overtake Carroll’s Tyler Emmert (13,979).

The record fell on an afternoon when Dodge took a backseat to the Raider ground game. He still completed 19 of 30 attempts for 259 yards, but it was the second time in 32 games that he didn’t throw multiple TD passes. The Bulldogs dared the Raiders to run, and run they did: Keegan Lawrence, Melvin Mason and Sean Tow combined for 205 yards and three TDs on 30 carries.

Carroll earlier used a similar strategy against the Raiders, and it resulted in Mason’s 202-yard, three-touchdown explosion. The Raiders totaled 302 rushing yards on 48 carries as a team, prompting 16th-year Carroll coach Mike Van Deist to tell the Helena Independent Record, “We gave up 300 yards of rushing. And I don’t know if we’ve done that since I’ve been here.”

CARROLL LEADERS: Since fumbling away Carroll’s last possession against SOU, first-year starter Mac Roche has been one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He’s thrown 13 touchdowns without an interception, averaged 267 passing yards per game and completed 70.8 percent of his attempts behind an offensive line that hasn’t let him get sacked the last two games.

Dustin Rinker remains one of the NAIA’s top running backs at an average of 111.4 yards per game with nine TDs. The bulky senior had a season-high 142 yards on 23 carries at SOU, and last year hit the Raiders up for 162 yards. Anthony Clarke is also boosting the offense with 136 receiving yards per game and seven scores.

All-American linebacker Sean Blomquist (32 tackles, two sacks) continues to anchor a defense that has sent 16 of the last 19 Nelson Stadium visitors home with 14 points or less. Sean Condon has 20 tackles and a team-best four sacks. Last week the Saints held EOU to 142 yards while tacking up 533 of their own.