Eagles score in spurts, defeat Illinois State 51-35, will host Sam Houston Saturday at Roos Field
Eastern Washington finally had enough offense to win a football game the easy way.
But what fun would that be?
So in true Eastern fashion the Eagles decided they needed to win the game twice, scoring a 51-35 Football Championship Subdivision Playoff victory over the Illinois State Redbirds last Saturday at Roos Field.
With the win, Eastern earned a semifinal round game Saturday at 1:05 p.m. back on the red rug at Roos against the Sam Houston State University Bearkats (10-3) with the winner on the way to the FCS title game in Frisco, Texas, Jan. 5.
Eastern used the arm of junior quarterback Kyle Padron and his 381 yards passing on a day when he completed 19 of 33 tosses for a school record tying six touchdowns. The Eagles won for the fifth straight time and 10th time in their last 11 starts.
Three of those six scores went to the sure hands of receiver, fellow junior Brandon Kaufman, with his nine catches good for 191 yards. Kaufman scored twice within 15 seconds in the third quarter to seemingly give the Eagles a more than comfortable 38-17 lead with 11 minutes, 1 second to go in the period.
It was his third touchdown, however, a 72-yard catch and run with 12:14 to play that fueled Eastern’s second scoring burst. It helped put the game away for good and improve Eastern’s season record to 11-2. Ashton Clark’s 10-yard catch with 7:42 to play finished scoring and stopped the Redbirds’ (9-4) six game winning streak.
In the win, Kaufman broke the EWU and Big Sky single season records for yards receiving with 1,635.
“It took a total team effort,” Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said. “It took all sorts of guys on both sides of the football and special teams to get this done.”
But Baldwin could not help avoid heaping further compliments on his one-two punch.
“These two guys were great in terms of their guts and mental toughness,” Baldwin said.
After Nick Aussieker’s 23-yard field goal gave ISU a 3-0 lead with 10:59 remaining in the first quarter, it began a span of the teams trading points – both touchdowns and field goals – and be tied 17-17 with 13:03 remaining in the first half.
Eastern got a touchdown from Daniel Johnson, his first of the season, on a 44-yard pass from Padron to lead 7-3 with 8:45 on the clock. After Tyrone Walker put the Redbirds back in the lead 10-7 on a 40-yard pass from Matt Brown with 4:33 to go in the first. Jimmy Pavel’s 20-yard field goal tied it at 10-10 after 15 minutes.
Pavel’s field goal was set up by an electrifying 93-yard kickoff return by Shaquille Hill where the freshman made a freshman mistake. Just before he crossed the goal line Hill dropped the ball, which rolled through the end zone. The resulting officials’ conference awarded the ball to the Eagles at the 1, but they were unable to punch it in on three tries.
After trading TDs early in the second quarter - a Demitrius Bronson 1-yard run tying it 17-17 for Eastern at 13:03 of the second - the frenzied pace slowed.
Defense, mostly Eastern’s, then took over. They got their first stop, a three and out, on the Redbirds’ fourth possession with just over 12 minutes to play in the half. Then, with 3:28 to go, Jordan Tonani intercepted Brown at Eastern’s 8, returning it to the 21.
That’s where Padron helped guide a 12 play, 79-yard drive that resulted in a Zack Gehring 1-yard touchdown with 10 seconds to play and send the Eagles to the break leading 24-17.
That would be part of a 28-point run that gave Eastern its big lead and included a 47-yard TD for Kaufman with 11:16 remaining in the third. A Ronnie Hamlin interception on the first play of Illinois State’s next possession gave Eastern the ball on ISU’s 17. Padron found Kaufman in stride on the very next play for a catch just before he stepped across the end line and the Eagles led 38-17.
While it might seem the Eastern game plan singled out Kaufman, it did not, Baldwin said. “Our offense is about taking certain things that they give us. If they get in situations where they are leaving a guy like Brandon or any of our guys single covered, we are going to go after them.”
Illinois State stepped up the defensive pressure, forcing Padron to fumble after a blind-side hit at the EWU 31. The Redbirds responded with a drive to the Eastern 9 but had to settle for a 26-yard Aussieker field goal to make it 38-20 with 5:14 left in the third. Just 2:11 later ISU scored on a 22-yard pass from Brown to Lechein Neblett to cut it to 38-27. They would complete the 18-point rally with a 13-yard Brown run, closing it to 38-35 with 1:05 gone in the final quarter.
On Eastern’s next series, and one play after Padron took a wicked unflagged helmet-to-helmet hit on a sack by Dontae McCoy, Eastern’s Southern Methodist University transfer quarterback emerged unfazed and fired the bomb to Kaufman down the right sideline for the score that took much of the air out of any ISU comeback.
“I am just so proud of the guys for how hard they fought and how they kept responding,” Baldwin said of the heroics on both sides of the ball.
Sophomore running back Quincy Forte added 116 yards on only seven carries, including a 57-yard gallop that set up Eastern’s final score. Senior Greg Herd had four catches for 74 yards.
Hamlin finished with 10 tackles to go along with his interception, and junior safety Allen Brown had nine stops. Junior cornerback T.J. Lee had eight tackles, a forced fumble and two passes broken up.
Paul Delaney can be reached at email@example.com.