Raider comeback 'almost felt unreal'

Moments after Mike McDonald put the finishing touches on Southern Oregon's thrilling come-from-behind victory Saturday over No. 21 Eastern Oregon, he wasn't quite sure how to react.

"It almost felt unreal," the junior quarterback said following Tuesday's practice behind Raider Stadium. "After the game I could only laugh. It was a great comeback, and that doesn't happen very often."

McDonald's emotional release is understandable.

Four days after he was named the team's starting QB, McDonald guided the Raiders to three touchdowns in the last five minutes, 23 seconds to turn what appeared to be an agonizing start to their season into an exhilarating 34-30 road victory over a playoff contender.

Since SOU competes as a NAIA independent, every game on its schedule against a fellow NAIA school is crucial to the Raiders' playoff hopes. A loss to Eastern Oregon would have left the Raiders in a dire situation only a week into their season.

That looked like a very real possibility after Eastern Oregon quarterback Chris Ware hit Kirk Miller with a 12-yard touchdown pass to give the Mountaineers a 30-14 lead with 13:07 to go in the game.

Southern Oregon was still down by the same score when it took possession following an EOU punt with 8:52 to go, and looked down in the dumps after consecutive incomplete passes by McDonald. And that's when the fun started.

McDonald completed a pair of 13-yard passes and a 14-yarder to give the Raiders a first-and-10 at the EOU 20-yard line, then hit Vance Beach to get the Raiders within 30-20.

The Raiders then went for the two-point conversion to make it a one possession game, but McDonald's pass fell incomplete.

Still, the Raiders had life.

"Once we got that first score and got it back to 30-20, we really thought we had a good chance," SOU head coach Steve Helminiak said.

SOU's ensuing onside kick was recovered by the Mountaineers, who went for the jugular five plays later by going for it on fourth-and-2 from the Raider 23-yard line. Ware's pass into the end zone fell incomplete, allowing the Raiders take over with 3:53 on the clock. Five plays later, McDonald hooked up with wide receiver Danny Keenan on a 49-yard pass that, following Tyler Crowley's PAT, brought the Raiders within 30-27.

"I think the kids got a little more disciplined in the fourth quarter and made the plays when they had to on the vertical routes, and that was the difference," Helminiak said. "We just started connecting on some of those routes that we weren't connecting on in the second and third quarter."

"The whole week, we had a saying, and the coaches had it in our game plan: Belief," McDonald added. "(Keenan) came up (during) that fourth quarter and said, 'Guys, we just gotta believe.'"

Apparently, Keenan's teammates listened because after another failed onside kick attempt, SOU linebacker Jake Kyle stripped EOU running back Kevin Sampson, and Josh McOmber recovered the fumble for the Raiders at their own 22.

That gave the Raiders 2 minutes, 11 seconds to go 78 yards. Earlier in the game, that would have been a stretch. But by now, the Raider offense had snapped out of its doldrums and suddenly looked unstoppable.

"There wasn't one guy on our sideline who didn't believe that we could come back and win that game," said McDonald, who on Tuesday was named the NAIA independent offensive player of the week. "And you know it started with our O-line — they gave me some extra time to throw the ball, and our receivers came up big with some big catches. I just threw the ball around and shared the rock, and everyone caught it and we ended up in the end zone most of the time."

McDonald did his part, too. Handling the pressure like an old pro, the transfer from Shasta Junior College and UNLV completed 5 of 6 passes for 55 yards on the game-winning drive, including the 17-yard touchdown pass to JaRod Hill with 41 seconds to go.

"(Hill) was there and I liked the matchup," McDonald said of the clincher. "We had been beating that corner all game long so I decided to take a shot with JaRod, and he came down with the ball."

Now, the Raiders will try to keep their momentum going through a bye week and into the Sept. 11 game against Simon Fraser.

To that end, the previous two seasons should provide plenty of motivation. SOU won its season openers in both 2008 and 2009, but followed with month-long losing streaks and finished a combined 5-14.

"We've started the last few years off one-and-oh, and it hasn't always gone our way," Helminiak said. "On Sunday, our theme was, 'Have some humility and be humble about it, and let's get back to work. Understand that what got us here was hard work, discipline and teamwork.'"

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