September 06, 2001 11:00 pm

By Pat Perkins

Observer Staff Writer

The Eastern Oregon Mountaineers solved a big eligibility question just in time for their longest road trip in years.

Defensive end Mike Kyle will play Saturday against Wisconsin-Whitewater after school officials ruled he was eligible by NCAA Division III standards.

Kyle has been highly touted by coach Rob Cushman and doubles as the teams punter. He will also see some time at fullback this weekend.

We were still following NAIA rules for eligibility, Cushman said. The NAIA rules are just different. There are different criteria, different progress rules. Division III has more institutional control, and we just had to decide what we were doing.

Im glad it happened finally.

Kyle was also happy, visibly relieved upon hearing the news Thursday morning. The Mountaineers left town Thursday night and flew to Chicago this morning. A 1 1/2-hour drive to Whitewater, Wis., followed for the 45 players who made the trip.

The hardest thing about this trip is the 40 guys who dont get to go, Cushman said.

Eastern picked up the game against Whitewater because the Wisconsin team is in the Division III West Region, and both teams need games against regional opponents to qualify for the playoffs. Eastern lost 21-14 to Willamette last week, and Willamette plays Wisconsin-Stout later this month.

Easterns offense struggled at times against Willamette. Two fumbles by quarterback Mark Hanrahan led to two Willamette touchdowns and several penalties conspired to kill drives. Even so, the Mountaineers outgained the Bearcats 347-238, with Hanrahan leading the team with 146 yards rushing.

Mark has more snaps in practice. His knowledge of the offense is a week better. Hes worked hard on the passing this week, Cushman said.

On film, Whitewaters defense may be slower than Willamettes, and that will work to Easterns favor. If we can get some things established in the option, we can get around them and get downfield, Cushman said.

Easterns defense will face an offensive line that averages 287 pounds. Whitewater beat Saint Xavier of Chicago, 36-10, last week behind 332 yards offense.

Thunderstorms are forecast for southern Wisconsin, and the humid weather could take its toll on a Mountaineer team used to a drier climate. That makes Kyles addition to the defensive line more important. Cushman plans on rotating bodies onto the line to keep everyone fresh.