Raiders lose QB, game to Menlo

ASHLAND — Southern Oregon head coach Steve Helminiak kept his postgame speech short and to the point.

"I don't want any negativity," he said after a brief recap of what went wrong, "we push on, no matter what."

Under most circumstances, the somber atmosphere that followed — you could almost hear a pin drop as the players met with family and friends afterward — would have seemed a little much considering it was only the Raiders' fourth game of the season. But it's not every day that a football season is pushed to the edge of a cliff on one devastating play.

Menlo outscored Southern Oregon 17-0 in the fourth quarter to overcome a 13-3 third-quarter deficit and hand the Raiders an emotionally draining 20-13 loss Saturday in SOU's home opener at Raider Stadium.

And that wasn't all the Raiders lost.

Southern Oregon starting quarterback Mike McDonald, who entered the game ranked fifth in the country in passing yards, suffered a catastrophic leg injury in the first quarter and was carted off the field. McDonald, whose scrambling ability brought another dimension to the Raider offense, broke the tibia and fibula in his left leg and is out for the season, according to Helminiak.

With McDonald out, SOU backup Paul Sweeney, who lost a hard-fought battle with McDonald for the starting position, struggled through a miserable 6-for-20 passing game that included an interception on an overthrown pass that sealed SOU's fate with 50 seconds to go.

"I was ready to go, I was confident, my team had confidence in me," said Sweeney, who was forced into emergency duty last year as well after Ben Running was ruled academically ineligible days before SOU's season opener. "I've been in this situation before. This loss, it hurts, but we'll come back from it. We won't think about it too long."

Menlo (3-1) scored two touchdowns in the last five minutes on a pair of touchdown passes by Cruz Castillo, who completed 23 of 34 passes for 196 yards. Castillo hit a diving Kyle Campas with an eight-yard scoring strike to tie the game at 13-all with 4:58 to go, then found Kenny Cavness with a 54-yard bomb to give the Oaks their first lead with 1:22 on the clock.

Cavness was matched step-for-step by SOU cornerback James Wheeler, but Castillo's pass was perfect and Wheeler stumbled and fell to the turf.

"They bite hard, and we were able to take advantage of it," Cavness said. "The line blocked, the quarterback threw a perfect pass and I just ran right under it."

"It was a good play because I had him covered and I just got tripped up on my feet," Wheeler said.

The Raiders (2-2) picked up one first down on the ensuing drive, but it was quickly followed by Derek Bosia's interception.

The Raiders started the game strong.

Southern Oregon settled for a field goal on its opening drive and, after holding Menlo, marched right down the field again on its second drive.

Then, disaster struck.

Facing a third-and-one on the Menlo 38, McDonald threw a deep pass over the middle intended for wide receiver Vance Beach. The pass was underthrown and intercepted by Bosia, who reversed direction in the end zone and ended up going out of bounds at the Menlo 35.

McDonald was hurt trying to make the tackle, his leg shattered by a teammate who was blocked backward. The crowd went silent for 20 minutes as trainers surrounded the junior transfer.

When asked how his team can overcome the loss of McDonald, Helminiak said: "They don't have any other choice. They have to rebound and rally around (Sweeney). And the other thing is we have to stop playing to the level of the teams we play. That's been our problem all year."

After the injury, the Raiders leaned more on running back Brandon Baldwin, who ended up with 128 yards rushing on 25 carries. Baldwin was the catalyst on SOU's best drive of the day, a five-play, 63-yard march that was capped by Mike Springer's 1-yard plunge with 4:33 to go in the first half.

Tyler Crowley's PAT gave the Raiders a 10-0 lead.

The Raiders and Oaks traded field goals in the third, and Menlo's Kevin Kurtz nailed his second field goal early in the fourth quarter to cut SOU's lead to 13-6.

The rest of the game belonged to the Oaks, who outgained SOU 264 yards to 219, including 196 to 92 through the air.

"What it reminds me of is probably how Eastern (Oregon) felt after we beat them," Helminiak said, referring to the Raiders' season-opening comeback win in La Grande. "It's going to be, how are you going to bounce back and recover from a loss like that. That's why football is a microcosm of life. There's going to be good times and bad times.

"You've got to play through the highs and lows and how we bounce back will show what kind of team we are, what kind of people we are."

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