Raiders look to get back to .500 against No. 17 Mounties

It's not the kind of streak that would make national headlines, but for a program attempting to rebuild three straight victories would at least be considered a pretty good start.

That's what the Southern Oregon University football team will be going for Saturday against 17th-ranked Eastern Oregon. If the Raiders can pull it off, it would represent their longest winning streak since the 2003 season.

But that's a pretty big "if."

The 17th-ranked Mountaineers opened the season with four straight wins, including a monster victory over then No. 1 Carroll in Week 2, and will be looking to come back strong following their first loss of the season — an ugly 51-17 home setback last Saturday to Rocky Mountain.

"It's the little civil war and it's going to be a real challenge," SOU head coach Craig Howard said. "But we've won two in a row and now it's let's win three in a row and get us back to .500."

Southern Oregon (2-3) hasn't been putting up big numbers on offense, but its defense has been stellar since the Sept. 17 loss to Willamette. The turnaround began with a low-scoring win over Webber International in SOU's home opener two weeks ago, and continued with last week's upset of then No. 24-ranked Menlo. In those two wins, the Raider defense allowed an average of 236 yards per game.

Leading the Raiders' defensive surge has been linebacker Mike Springer. The 5-foot-11, 225-pound senior has been a godsend to the defense since making the shift from fullback in the offseason. He leads the team in tackles (46) and tackles for a loss (10) and is tied for the lead in sacks (2 1/2) and interceptions (1). His fourth-quarter pick sealed SOU's win over Webber International, and he had two sacks against Menlo.

"I'm not surprised, that's why we made the switch," Howard said.

Springer and company will have their hands full Saturday. The Mountaineers boast one of the most prolific offenses in the nation, averaging 36 points and 412 yards per game.

Quarterback Chris Ware has already passed for 1,179 yards and 11 touchdowns while completing 64 percent of his passes. He spreads the ball around — four Eastern Oregon receivers have 10 catches or more and three more wideouts have six or more. Ware's favorite target is Jake Burroughs, who has 16 catches for 253 yards.

Eastern doesn't necessarily have to pass the ball effectively in order to move up and down the field thanks to a rushing game that's averaging 170 yards. Running back Kevin Sampson ranks fifth in the NAIA in rushing yards (581) and yards per game (116.2), and is eighth in scoring with eight touchdowns. Sampson is also a threat when he goes out for a pass. He's tied for the team lead in receptions and has 152 yards receiving.

If SOU gets into a shootout, redshirt freshman quarterback Austin Dodge has shown signs that he can at least keep the Raiders moving, if not scoring. Following two subpar starts after taking over for Mike McDonald in Week 3, Dodge put together his most complete game of the season at Menlo, completing 17 of 33 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns without an interception.

"(The Mountaineers) give us some problems on defense," Howard said. "They run a double-flex defense and fly around pretty well. We've got to be able to run the football as well as pass. Austin Dodge is (coming off) his best performance last week. Hopefully he builds on that."

Game notes: Saturday marks the 62nd meeting between the two teams in a series that dates back to 1930. SOU leads 44-17. "… SOU has won three of the past five meetings, including two straight. "… Five of the past six meetings between the longtime rivals have been decided by single digits, including SOU's 34-30 win last season. "… Eastern Oregon ranks No. 1 in the nation in third-down conversions, coming through 52 percent of the time.

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