Raiders look to bounce back against Linfield

It may seem a little early in the college football season to enter must-win mode, but consider the situation: Three weeks into September and yet Southern Oregon University will play its final home game this weekend at Raider Stadium.

At best, the 1-2 Raiders can get back to .500 before rounding out their schedule with five straight road games. Lose, and they'll have to claw their way back contending with a schedule that includes zero gimmies and only two other NAIA opponents.

So if Saturday's tilt with Linfield is not a must-win game, then it's at least a better-not-lose if the Raiders hope to retain 2009 relevance.

"It's going to take a win to get the guys out of their funk, no doubt about it," coach Steve Helminiak said. "It's been a long week, no doubt about it, but the guys are focused like I've never seen."

Of course, SOU has its unbalanced NAIA Independent schedule to thank for many of its problems.

The Raiders, who demonstrated a gutsy comeback against Eastern Oregon to earn a 32-28 win in the season opener, were allowed little margin for error after showing up at Portland State to take their beating in Week 2.

Consequently, Southern Oregon's home loss at the hands of Willamette last weekend — the Raiders blew a 13-3 halftime lead and several opportunities to get it back — served as one of the most disappointing defeats in the Helminiak era.

"It felt like you got punched in the gut," the fourth-year head coach said. "It was such a tough loss, and you felt it, and I think what happens is you do a lot of soul searching, questioning, and you wonder what you're doing wrong. But you have to get beyond that quickly."

After getting off to the same start last year, the Raiders dropped to 1-5 after a three-game slide that started when Willamette turned a 17-3 deficit into a 31-23 victory.

As Helminiak and his players have insisted all along, though, this is a different team than the one put on the field in 2008. More family-oriented, as they like to put it, but mostly just different.

All talk aside, now they'll have to prove it.

"The way they can be different from that team is how they respond to adversity," Helminiak said. "That's going to be the key to our season, just like it was last year."

Linfield, an NCAA Division III school, will enter Saturday's contest 2-0 and fresh off a 31-27 win over 21st-ranked Occidental (Calif.).

A perennial Northwest Conference powerhouse, the 13th-ranked Wildcats are coming off a 6-3 season that included a playoff appearance and a 14-7 win over the Raiders. Now they are looking to get back atop the conference standings after three consecutive runner-up seasons snapped a streak of five straight league titles.

If the Raiders are to earn their first win over Linfield since 2001, they will lean on a running game that has been a throwback to the days of All-Americans Casey Jackson, Griff Yates and Dusty McGrorty.

Brandon Baldwin, a transfer from Shasta Junior College, has given the ground game a boost in the form of 195- and 171-yard outputs against EOU and Willamette, respectively. The 5-foot-10 sophomore has rushed for 4.3 yards per carry and found the end zone three times this year.

"Defensively, I think they're as tough as any team we'll face all year, and I really mean that," Helminiak said of Linfield. "They play extremely hard and with some great motors, and they're not real big up front, but they'll be keying in on Brandon so that should be a battle."

Sophomore quarterback Paul Sweeney has been stellar, and besides his 16-for-41 showing at Portland State, is completing passes at a 55 percents clip, but Helminiak said that number needs to improve.

Vance Beach has been on the receiving end of all three of Sweeney's touchdown passes, and has racked up 91 receiving yards per game.

The Raider defense will have to contend with Linfield quarterback Aaron Boehme, who has completed 68 percent of his passes for more than 500 yards and four touchdowns in two games.

The Linfield offense is headed by coordinator and Ashland football icon Jim Nagel, who led Ashland High to three state championships in 20 years as head coach. The Wildcats have led the nation in offense twice since his arrival in 2004.

But for the Raiders, the focus remains on themselves, and the 16 seniors who will march into Raider Stadium for the last time on Saturday at 6 p.m.

"The pressure the guys feel right now is how bad they want to win and be successful," Helminiak added. "Nobody around here is going to feel great until we get a win."

Oh yes, welcome to better-not-lose week.

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