RACINE — As Jordan Payne surveyed the defense with an undefeated season hanging in the balance, he turned to his quarterback and uttered one word that would bail out the Racine Raiders within a matter of seconds Saturday night.
That tipped off Raiders quarterback Mitchell Farr that Payne had seen something he could exploit and would be altering his route to a second option Farr knew he would use. Gaining a step on Illinois Cowboys cornerback Lamont Barnes with his improvised pattern, Payne caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Farr.
And just like that, the rusty Raiders, who appeared dead in the water much of this chilly night, had a 17-14 lead over the undermanned, yet resolute Cowboys with 51 seconds to play. They would protect that lead and win this Midwest Tournament semifinal, with Payne playing the hero role for the second straight game.
After taking off next week for the 100th anniversary celebration of Horlick Field, the Raiders (14-0) will host the Detroit Ravens for the tournament championship Oct. 26. If they win that game, Raiders president Matt Nelson will negotiate to play in a national championship game, which would probably be played Nov. 2.
But if not for another clutch performance by Payne, a former All-American receiver at Alcorn State, the Raiders’ season would have ended Saturday night. What exactly did he see as the sputtering Raiders were at the Cowboys’ 14-yard line?
“I realized the whole game that they had been giving us the inside, so we knew down inside the red zone that they were going to man-to-man, which they did,” said Payne, who caught three passes for 42 yards. “We initially had a play, but then me and Mitch communicated some things and then he knew I was going to run a slant.
“So I gave him (Barnes) a hard move outside and Mitch put it on me. I saw they had no help over the middle, no safety help, so I just needed to win on the inside.”
In the Raiders’ previous game before Saturday night, Payne had a long kickoff return and then threw a touchdown pass as the emergency quarterback after Farr was injured. That gave the Raiders a thrilling 21-20 victory over the Midway Marauders in the Mid-States Football League championship game Sept. 14.
Four weeks later, Payne played the role of the hero once again to add another chapter to the Raiders’ magical season.
“Jordan is just such an outstanding athlete and he’s an even better person,” Raiders coach Wilbert Kennedy said. “And he’s a big-play guy. He makes things happen. He’ll do anything you ask him to do.
“To have Jordan is so big. He made some big plays for us a month ago and, tonight, he did it again. He’s just a great person to be around. We all love him.”
Early in the second quarter, Aaron Hilliard’s punt was blocked and Rance Hughes recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown as the Cowboys took a 6-0 lead.
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As the game wore on, it started to appear as if that lead would hold up because the Raiders’ offense was playing its worst game of the season.
The Cowboys only brought 22 players, but several of those were from the powerful Lincoln-Way Patriots, including star quarterback Tony Powell. And their stout defense gave the Raiders fits most of the night, holding them to 148 total yards. They averaged just 2.6 yards per play.
Leading rusher Howard Triplett was held to 35 yards on 13 carries. And Farr was off target much of the night, completing just 12 of 35 passes for 145 yards, with two interceptions.
“It was a struggle,” Farr said. “We’ve been off for awhile, so it was like being in the first game of the season all over again.”
When Powell lofted a pass over the middle to Deonta Stevens in the first minute of the third quarter for a 52-yard touchdown, the Cowboys took a 14-0 lead with the two-point conversion. Considering how poorly the Raiders were performing offensively, it started to appear as if the 5-4 Cowboys might oust them — and in the confines of Horlick Field.
But Farr kept chipping away as the adversity built and he finally started making things happen.
With 3:55 left in the third quarter, he twisted away from what appeared to be a sure sack and fired a 37-yard touchdown strike to Brandon Smith. That pulled the Raiders to within 14-7, but would they be able to build on that against the Cowboys’ exceptional defense?
The answer was yes and, again, Payne played a big part. With 8:41 left in the third quarter, Farr threw what initially appeared to be an interception, but Farr stripped the ball from the defender for a 15-yard reception.
That gave the Raiders possession on the Cowboys’ 16. They went on to settle for a 30-yard field goal by T.J. Hearn with 6:47 to play, trimming their deficit to 14-10.
At this point, it was incumbent on the Raiders to get some stops. And with the crafty Powell at quarterback, that wasn’t going to be so easy.
But a 10-play drive stalled at the Raiders’ 40 after middle linebacker Deveron Davis stopped Anthony Stephenson for a 6-yard gain on a screen pass on fourth-and 12.
The Raiders’ defense was more than respectable on this night, holding the Cowboys to 3 for 17 on third-down conversions and 2 for 11 on fourth-down conversions. And when they came up with this key stop, Farr and Payne went on to extend the Raiders’ season for at least another two weeks instead of allowing it to unceremoniously end.
“He came out and he saw something on the field that he wanted, which was different than the play was called,” Davis said of Payne. “And he went out there and just took charge.”
And now the Raiders are within two victories of winning the organization’s 10 national tournament championship. Kennedy, who has been a part of seven of them as a player and a coach, could only marvel at what he saw from his players Saturday night.
“This team shows a lot of character,” he said. “They just never quit. We didn’t play very well tonight. We were flat in that first half and didn’t show a lot in the second half. The defense was solid, though. The defense, I thought, played well all night.
“That was one of my fears, starting slow after being off for so long. But the guys found something and they kept after it. And, let’s face, they (the Cowboys) were a great football team. They were really good.”