“Find a way,” were the continual words of Eastern Washington University head football coach in the waning seconds Saturday (Nov. 17) at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, Ore.
Eastern’s All-America wide receivers – and transfer quarterback Kyle Padron -- came up with huge plays when the Eagles needed them most, and EWU secured its sixth Big Sky Conference title with a 41-34 victory over Portland State. Eastern scored the winning points on an eight-play, 94-yard drive to break a 34-all tie with 1:25 to play in a steady downpour.
“I’m so proud of our players for finding a way again to get it done against a tough Portland State team,” said Baldwin, whose team won the NCAA Division I title two years ago. “It was a battle, but we found a way.”
Padron passed for 380 yards and a pair of touchdowns to 2011 All-American Nicholas Edwards in the second half as Eastern rallied from season-high deficits of 13 and 12 points. And, Kaufman, who had a medical redshirt last season after earning All-America honors in 2010, had nine catches for 161 yards, with a pair that mere words cannot do justice.
Defensively, senior linebacker Zach Johnson had a pair of interceptions in the second half and three tackles, and junior cornerback T.J. Lee had eight tackles and three passes broken up.
Eastern won a share of its sixth Big Sky Conference, and will find out Sunday who they will play in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs. Eastern will make its ninth appearance, and sixth since 2004. The selection show is at 10:30 a.m. Pacific time on ESPNU, and EWU expects to host a foe on Dec. 1 at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.
“It feels great,” said Baldwin, whose team won the NCAA Division I title two years ago. “Big Sky Conference championships are hard to come by and I told our team that. Sometimes you forget how special it is to go out and win a Big Sky title because you are two years removed from a national title. It’s hard and it’s been hard. It’s hard to go through this conference with just one loss.”
Padron, a junior who transferred this year from Southern Methodist, came off the bench to complete 26-of-38 passes for 381 yards and two touchdowns, and also rushed for one. He replaced starter Vernon Adams, who was 4-of-7 for 82 yards.
Kaufman had two sensational, highlight-reel catches after tipped balls. Eastern’s top All-America candidate this season, the junior has gone over the 100-yard mark eight times this season and 16 times in his career. Senior Greg Herd added seven catches for 108 yards, and Edwards added four for 77 yards and his two scores.
Padron is no stranger to big games – in fact, he is the only Eastern player in school history to be MVP in a bowl game, let alone play in one. In 2009 while at SMU, he was MVP of the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl after passing for a school-record 460 yards and two TDs in SMU's 45-10 win over Nevada. Current Portland State head coach Nigel Burton was the defensive coordinator for Nevada in that game.
“Kyle was a stud,” Baldwin said. “I knew there was a chance he could play a little more in this game based on certain things they were doing. It’s a unique situation being able to play guys based on a match-up. It worked out and he played really well. The receivers made plays. We dialed-up the right protections to give him time, and when all was said and done, we made enough plays to win.”
Eastern rushed for four touchdowns, but was held to a paltry rushing total for the second-straight year, finishing with no yards on the ground to go along with 463 through the air. Eastern had minus-1 yards rushing a year ago in a 43-26 setback to Portland State, a loss which essentially cost the Eagles a playoff berth.
“It was just tough,” admitted Baldwin. “I give Portland State a lot of credit. We know coming in they could score points, and their defensive front was good too. We tried to establish a running game but it was a struggle. We just felt like there were some things we could do in the passing game, and we were able to do that. Obviously, in our next game we are going to want better balance. We’ve had good balance all year but they made it really tough to run the ball.”
Eastern ended the regular season 9-2 overall and 7-1 in the Big Sky, while PSU ended its season 3-8 overall and 2-6 in the league.
“We have a pretty strong resume,” Baldwin said of his team, which received a No. 5 seed in 2010. “We were 9-2 in 2010, but one of those was a NCAA Division I win over Central Washington. We are 9-2 this year with all of our wins against Division I teams, including a FBS school. But we don’t control that. We’ll find out our opponent and play that game.”
From the opening quarter, it was apparent it was going to be another gut-wrencher for Eastern.
The Eagles dug themselves a quick 13-0 hole, thanks to pair of uncharacteristic fumbles and a bad snap. Eastern had entered the game with a +6 advantage in turnover margin, and had only fumbled the ball away four times in the first 10 games.
One of the fumbles led to PSU’s first score, and the bad snap led to PSU’s second score of the day. The 13-point Vikings lead is the largest deficit EWU has faced all season, second to an 11-point deficit Eastern rallied from for a 31-28 victory over UC Davis on Nov. 10.
After getting out-gained 120-48 in the first quarter and having the ball for just 4:52, Eastern scored on consecutive drives in the second quarter. Padron relieved Adams and led EWU on an eight-play, 65-yard drive, scoring Eastern’s first points of the day on a 4-yard run. Kaufman had a one-handed grab for a 28-yard catch after the ball was tipped by a PSU defender to help set-up the score.
Padron, who was 7-of-10 for 96 yards in the quarter, then led EWU on a nine-play, 42-yard drive after a 26-yard punt return by Ashton Clark. A 4-yard TD run by Demitrius Bronson and the point after by Jimmy Pavel gave EWU a 14-13 lead at halftime, as EWU had a 132-46 advantage in offense in the second quarter.
The Vikings regained a 26-14 lead after scoring after a pair of three-and-outs by EWU. But again, Kaufman sparked the Eagles with a sensational 43-yard grab. Another long pass was tipped by a PSU defender, but this time the ball bounced off Kaufman’s leg and then into his waiting arms as he fell to the ground. His catch set-up a 1-yard touchdown run by Bronson.
Eastern got the ball back after a PSU punt, and Padron calmly drove Eastern 76 yards on four plays. A diving 36-yard TD reception by Edwards from Padron gave the Eagles a 27-26 lead.
After an interception by EWU linebacker Zach Johnson – the fourth of his illustrious career – the Eagles took a 34-26 advantage on an 18-yard TD pass to Edwards on a 49-yard drive.
But the Vikings engineered a 78-yard touchdown drive, and knotted the score at 34 with the two-point conversion.
In Eastern’s game-winning drive, Padron was 5-of-5 for 73 yards, and had pass plays of 32 yards to Herd and 19 yards to Kaufman.
On the next possession, on a third-down play from the PSU 48-yard line, Johnson had his second interception of the day to clinch the title for the Eagles.
“They are rare,” said Baldwin of the league title – his fourth as either an Eastern assistant coach (2004, 2005) and head coach (2010, 2012). “We want to make them the norm, but it’s not easy. When you win a Big Sky title it’s special and you feel good about it. Now we’ll move on to our second season so to speak.
“It feels like we’ve been through a war the last nine weeks with no bye,” he added. “We’ll wake up Sunday and see where we are.”