By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
At first glance, the Southern Oregon Raiders should be a team that's beatable. After all, SOU is still in search of that elusive first win of the season as the team welcomes the Montana State University-Northern football team to Ashland, Ore., on Saturday for an NAIA nonconference matchup.
But upon closer examination, the Raiders might be the best 0-3 team in the country. The Raiders' three losses have come at the hands of NCAA Division III Linfield College, NCAA Division II powerhouse Humboldt State and NCAA Division I-AA University of San Diego.
"They're much better than their record indicates," said Lights head coach Walt Currie.
That may be a slight understatement. SOU is coming off of back-to-back eight- win seasons, including an appearance in last year's NAIA quarterfinals where it was edged by Carroll College 35-31 on Robb Latrielle's last-second touchdown pass.
Last season, Southern Oregon put a sour note on Northern's homecoming, scoring 28 points in the first quarter en route to a 42-0 win.
The Raiders return all-everything back Dusty McGrorty for his senior season. McGrorty does everything for the Raiders but drive the team bus. He leads the NAIA in rushing with 598 yards on the season. Last week against San Diego, McGrorty rushed for 227 yards on 32 carries. He is averaging 7.2 yards every time he touches the ball.
"I thought McGrorty was done last year," Currie said. "I wish he was done last year. He's been a nightmare for us."
In last year's game, McGrorty rushed for 100 yards on 19 carries in limited action due to injury. This year he is fully healthy and already giving Northern defensive coordinator Mickey Williams headaches.
"He only played a quarter or so last year and still got a 100 yards," Williams said. "They are going to establish him right away and we have to be ready for him."
According to Williams, SOU is very similar to Montana Tech in terms of offensive style and philosophy.
"They're a run first team like Tech," Williams said. "They establish the run and use it to set up their passing game. They are going to run the football unless they get behind."
Unlike Tech, who Northern beat for its only win of the season, the Raiders have some very capable big play receivers in Andrae Thurman and Bobby Poeltl.
Thurman, a transfer from the University of Arizona, is coming off a 10-catch, 207-yard performance against San Diego and is third in the NAIA in receiving. Poeltl is also a threat to break big plays.
"They throw it to those two guys just enough to keep you honest so you can't completely focus on McGrorty and the run game," Williams said.
Williams' defense is relatively healthy, but will still be shorthanded. Starting strong safety Cort Milks and starting cornerback Nathaniel Walters will not suit up because they are serving one-game suspensions.
That leaves Williams with half of his secondary missing. Regardless, he will employ the same defensive scheme he used against Montana Tech earlier this year.
"We'll do a lot of penetrating and slants similar to a goal line defense and play man coverage in the secondary," he said. "We just don't have the personnel to sit back and read their offense. We have to force the action."
With SOU content to run the ball and Northern also trying to play a ball-control style, Currie knows that the number of possessions in the game will shrink.
"Each possession will be key," Currie said. "In a game like this, we'll have to maintain field position while getting the most out of each possession."
Northern has never scored an offensive touchdown in three meetings against Southern Oregon, a statistic Currie would like to change.
"Our offense is much better and more efficient than it has been in the past," he said. "We've been able to consistently move the football against everyone."
Indeed, Northern has put together solid drives in every game and has plenty of first downs and third-down conversions, but those drives have rarely culminated in points.
Northern has been abysmal offensively in the red zone, a problem that Currie has desperately been trying to find solutions for.
"It's gotten to be kind of a mental thing," he said. "It limits the offensive play calling because of the shortened field and the limited area a defense has to cover."
Excuses aside, Currie knows the red zone production must get better for his team to be in the game.
"You've got to be able to run and avoid big losses of yardage down there," Currie said. "We have a kicking game now, so zero yards is better than negative yards. We have to avoid sacks, penalties and especially turnovers. You can't turn the ball over in the red zone."
The Northern offense is averaging 339 yards of total offense a game, but just 13.6 points per game.
"It's the same thing every week," Currie said. "You can beat a team with superior talent if you don't make mistakes. And we haven't been able to avoid mistakes."
Northern and SOU will kick off at 1 p.m. and can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.