The fly on Raiders' mind

A running back on Southern Oregon's scout team takes a handoff at full speed and sprints parallel to the line of scrimmage, looking for an opportunity to turn the corner. He's cut off by a defensive end who wasn't fooled by a fake dive. That pushes the play back the other way and the ball carrier is quickly sandwiched and stopped for a loss.

"It's called assignment football," SOU head coach Steve Helminiak said following Thursday morning's practice.

And the Raiders must be equally disciplined Saturday — the opening kickoff is set for 3 p.m. at Raider Stadium — or risk looking foolish against the Willamette Bearcats and their deceptive fly offense.

The game is the third of the season for SOU (1-1) following a dramatic comeback win over Eastern Oregon and last week's drubbing at Division I FCS Portland State. It's a big one, too. For the first time in four year the Raiders earned votes in the NAIA top 25 poll and could break into the top 25 with a win over the NCAA Division III Bearcats (1-1).

Willamette presents a stiff challenge, however. The Bearcats were voted No. 1 in the Northwest Conference preseason coaches poll and were ranked as high as eighth nationally before losing their season-opener at Concordia-Moorehead.

Both teams will be looking to get back above .500. That's particularly important for the Raiders, who host Linfield next week then hit the road for their final five regular season games.

"It's huge from a mental standpoint that our guys continue to build that confidence," Helminiak said. "We've got to validate everything we've been doing and this game is another way to do that."

To pull off the upset, the Raiders will have to find a way to keep Willamette's fly offense in check. That's what Concordia-Moorhead did on Sept. 5, holding the Bearcats to 117 rushing yards and 229 overall in a 24-17 loss. But Willamette got back on track last weekend, racking up 199 rushing yards and 395 overall in a 20-13 win over California Lutheran.

The fly offense is characterized by misdirection — traps, counters and play-action passes — which typically plays off its most consistent weapon, the fly sweep. All that trickery can open up big holes for running backs, and Willamette's Dean Home took advantage against Cal Lutheran by rushing for 147 yards and a touchdown.

"We've been going over all our calls and checks, making sure we know what our assignments are," SOU defensive back Damilyn Tanner said after Thursday's practice. "It's a real confusing offense; you don't know who has the ball."

The Bearcats' rushing attack certainly confused the Raiders' defense last season, gaining 223 yards while overcoming a 17-3 deficit to win 31-23 in Salem.

If SOU's offense continues to make strides that started against Eastern Oregon and continued against PSU, the Raiders may be able to survive a similar onslaught Saturday.

Sophomore quarterback Pat Sweeney has passed for 453 yards and two touchdowns in two games and running back Brandon Baldwin is averaging 111 rushing yards per outing.

Sweeney's completion percentage is a very average 47 percent, but he's been plagued by dropped passes, something Helminiak said needs to change in order for the Raider offense to take the next step.

One Raider receiver who hasn't been dropping passes is Vance Beach. The senior speed-burner caught eight passes for 143 yards and a touchdown against Portland State, shaking off double teams along the way. He'll likely see more of the same against Willamette, a strategy that could backfire if Sweeney and his receiving corps can cash in.

"That's good for us," Beach said of facing double coverage. "If we can get somebody out of the way looking for me, we've got a whole bunch of other talent out here that can step up and get open so hey, if they want to do that then that's a mistake."

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