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SOU faces big test with No. 21 Rocky Mountain

ASHLAND — Call it the win that still haunts the Southern Oregon University football team.

The 2013 season opener against Rocky Mountain in Grants Pass technically went to the Raiders in the records books, sure, but they remember it as the 35-30 loss that started a problematic trend of not finishing games strong. Rocky Mountain forfeited seven weeks later due to the use of an ineligible player, but even that was of little consolation to SOU.

The fifth-ranked Raiders (7-1 overall, 6-1 Frontier) have clearly turned the page on last season. On Saturday they have an opportunity to turn the page on their rivalry with the 21st-ranked Battlin’ Bears (5-3, 4-3), and their Frontier Conference title chances likely depend on it. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Raider Stadium.

SOU has a 4-1 edge in the all-time series but hasn’t defeated the Battlin’ Bears on the field since 2004. In 2012 the Raiders led 17-7 when the teams hooked up in Billings, Mont., but Rocky Mountain went on to win 52-30.

The Raiders, who are still tied in first place with Carroll, have defeated every other Frontier team at least twice since joining the conference two years ago. They’re also 5-0 at home against ranked opponents since fourth-year head coach Craig Howard took over.

“We’re highly motivated because we haven’t beaten this team, and the veterans who have been around for a couple tough losses are very anxious,” Howard said. “They’re a great team that has some of the best players in the conference. And I always say the great teams play their best football in November. It’s time to kick it into high gear.”

LAST WEEK: The Raiders bounced back from a 42-40 loss at second-ranked Carroll (which snapped a six-game win streak and dropped them three spots to No. 7 in the rankings) with their fastest start of the season at College of Idaho. One minute into the second quarter, quarterback Austin Dodge was 6-for-6 with 261 passing yards and three touchdowns, and the Raiders were up 35-10 en route to a 66-16 triumph.

Despite ranking first in the NAIA in passing yards (376.9/game), second in total offense (562.6/game) and fourth in scoring (45.2/game), SOU had only scored multiple first-quarter TDs twice coming into the game.

The Raiders moved back to No. 5 in the NAIA rankings after the win, which saw them total 694 yards of offense, their most since Oct. 26 of last year, and the Yotes total 260, the lowest count for a Frontier opponent against SOU in 12 games. Dodge, who ended up with four TDs and 443 yards on 23-of-29 passing, was named the NAIA offensive player of the week for the sixth time in his career.

“I was very pleased, especially coming off a heartbreaking loss,” Howard said. “Good teams have that resiliency to bounce back; it’s something they all have in common. That might have been our best combined offensive and defensive performance in a couple years.”

HISTORY LESSON: How rare is it for Dodge to be bested? In 27 career Frontier games, he’s accumulated fewer passing yards than his quarterbacking counterparts three times. Rocky Mountain senior Bryce Baker happens to be responsible for two of those three.

Baker has lit up the Raider defense like no one else, throwing for 510 yards and five TDs in 2012 and 517 yards and three TDs in 2013. All-American receiver Andre McCullouch shared 177 of those yards last season.

This year McCullouch ranks third in the NAIA in receptions (8.3/game) and Baker ranks seventh in passing yards (276.3) on a 65.9-percent completion rate. The Bears average 385 total yards, but are only getting 3.1 yards per rush compared to 4.8 for their opponents.

MORE ROCKY MOUNTAIN: Led by eighth-year head coach Brian Armstrong, the Bears are on the verge of their fourth consecutive winning season, which is all the more notable considering they went 4-29 in the three years leading up to his hiring. They were picked in the preseason to finish second in the Frontier, behind Carroll and in front of SOU, and got to as high as No. 5 in the NAIA rankings after a 3-0 start.

They’ve been brought down, however, by some puzzling woes on their home field, where they are 1-3 with losses to Eastern Oregon (27-24), Carroll (33-8) and last week Montana Western (20-17). They’re 4-0 on the road.