Southern Oregon head coach Steve Helminiak didn't like the way the Raiders finished last season. He can't complain too much about how they started this one.
Brandon Baldwin rushed for 195 yards, Tyler Crowley made all four field goal attempts and Southern Oregon's defense buckled down just in time as the Raiders scored two touchdowns in the last eight minutes to beat Eastern Oregon 32-28 Saturday in both teams season opener at Raider Stadium.
Eastern built a 28-16 lead and appeared on the verge of burying the Raiders before an interception by SOU's Scott Graves with 14:23 to go in the fourth quarter altered the course of the game. The Raiders responded with a 12-play, 96-yard touchdown drive capped by Baldwin's 1-yard plunge with 7:45 left.
After a three-and-out by Eastern, the Raiders' Jarrod Moroni stormed through the line for his second punt block of the day and two plays later Baldwin slashed in from 7 yards out to put the Raiders ahead for good.
"This is a new team, this is a new attitude," Helminiak told the team during an emotional postgame speech. "That's what it means to stick together as a team."
The Mountaineers of LaGrande had two more possessions in the final 4:44 to attempt a comeback of their own, but the first drive went nowhere and the second was throttled immediately when SOU's Nate Best intercepted Chris Ware's pass on first-and-10.
Ware finished 16-for-31 for 315 yards and three touchdowns, but most of his success came in the first half, when the Mountaineers built a 21-6 lead midway through the second quarter.
SOU quarterback Paul Sweeney was 18-for-32 for 222 yards, including a needle-threading 26-yard touchdown pass to Vance Beach. The efficient performance came just two days after Sweeney, a sophomore out of Sacred Heart Cathedral of San Francisco, found out he would be starting in place of Ben Running, who was ruled academically ineligible Thursday.
"It was a little nerve-racking but I handled it pretty good," Sweeney said. "I just went into this game thinking that I've got to manage it and get the ball into the playmaker's hands and that's basically what we did and that's why we won it."
The busiest playmaker for SOU on Saturday was Baldwin, who didn't take long to show why the Raider coaching staff expects big things out of him. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound sophomore transfer out of Shasta JC ran up the middle and around the end with equal success, displaying a combination of cutback ability and leg-pumping power not seen here since Dusty McGrorty set the standard for small college running backs six years ago.
"(Baldwin) was everything today that we hoped he was going to be," Helminiak said. "He's quick, he's fast, he's strong, he finishes his runs, he's shifty, and I think that's the guy we've been looking for the last three seasons."
Baldwin gave credit to SOU's offensive line, which helped the Raiders outgain EOU on the ground, 221 yards to 96.
"With an offensive line like this, things are going to be open somewhere," he said.
The Mountaineers scored touchdowns on three of their first five possessions, taking a 15-point lead on Ware's 35-yard scoring strike to Kirk Miller with 6:26 to go in the first half. Miller caught five passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns and teammate Jordyn Jackson caught five passes for 102 yards to help Eastern outgain Southern through the air, 315 to 222.
The Raiders responded with a four-play, 77-yard drive capped by Sweeney's bullet to Beach, who snared the ball between two defenders to make it 21-13. Beach led the Raider receiving corps with 75 yards on six catches.
Crowley booted a 37-yard field goal with 3:11 to go in the first half to make it 21-16. Crowley, another Shasta JC transfer, also made field goals of 20 yards, 43 yards and 21 yards, and was 2-for-2 on PAT's.
The Mountaineers got right back to work in the third quarter, forcing a three-and-out by the Raiders, then marching 83 yards in nine plays to go up 28-16. Ware completed the drive, Eastern's longest of the day, with a 28-yard touchdown pass to Rick Copsey.
After another field goal by Crowley the teams traded possessions until the Mountaineers were in business again, marching to the SOU 11 early in the fourth quarter. Looking for what could have been a knockout blow, Ware's second-and-two pass into traffic was deflected into the air, and Graves leaped in for a momentum-stealing interception.
"Once that happened, our team came together and we knew we could do anything," SOU defensive tackle Dan Harvey said.
The Raiders outgained the Mountaineers 120 yards to minus-1 the rest of the way.
"I don't know when the exact turning point was," Eastern head coach Tim Camp said. "I think that we played a good football team and I think two football teams went out there and played as hard as they could for four quarters and the best team won today."
SOU's 96-yard scoring march was a thing of beauty — five passes for 62 yards and seven runs for 34 yards — and a likely confidence boost for Sweeney.
With the Raiders' hopes riding on a sophomore making his first collegiate start, Sweeney proved up to the challenge. He completed 5 of 5 passes, including a clutch 15-yard laser to Cole McKenzie on second-and-10 from their own 4.
He was rewarded with a loud ovation from his teammates after the game, as Helminiak pointed to him and said, "Good job today, son."
SOU now has two weeks to prepare for a money game against Portland State, a Division I-FCS program — PSU will pay SOU between $20,000 and $35,000, according to SOU interim athletic director Matt Sayre. After that, the Raiders host back-to-back home games against Willamette and Linfield.
Helminiak believes the clutch finish Saturday will give the Raiders confidence that they can perform under pressure, something the team struggled with last season.
"Every close ball game we lost last year, and this is a close ball game where we get a win, so it kind of shows that they can do it and they've got the ability," Helminiak said. "There's a lot of things that we're going to learn from watching the film, there's a lot of things that we can improve upon, but I feel good about what it does for us."
Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or email@example.com