As Illinois State went all-in, Beau Baldwin showed his poker face Saturday night.
For that, his Eastern Washington football team is still at the final table, the pile of chips and the confidence a little higher after taking down Illinois State 51-35 to move with a game of a return trip the FCS national title game.
This one came without the usual nail-biting finish, perhaps because the nails were chewed by the end of a dramatic third quarter at chilly Roos Field in Cheney.
The Eagles led by 20 points midway through the third quarter on a pair of Brandon Kaufman touchdown catches just 15 seconds apart, then saw Illinois State score 18 straight to close within 38-35 a minute into the fourth quarter.
The Redbirds were bringing more players than the Eagles could handle, forcing the EWU coach to play high-risk, high-reward offense. Against a team that was all-in, Baldwin played his ace.
That would be Kaufman, No. 1 in your program, who responded with a 76-yard touchdown catch down the right sideline that restored a two-score lead early in the fourth quarter and put the 11-2 Eagles on their way to a semifinal matchup at home with Sam Houston State on Saturday at 1 p.m.
“They were putting all their chips in, and when you run into that they’re going to stuff you sometimes,” Baldwin said of the aggressive Illinois State defense.
“They weren’t in a bend-but-don’t-break mode, they were coming at you. We even said, at 38-35, we’re going to hit a couple more big plays.”
Leading now 44-35, the Eastern defense yielded just one first down before forcing a Redbird punt. On third-and-10, Kaufman made the last of his nine catches, good for 18 yards and a first down at the 36. On the next play, running back Quincy Forte found a hole off left tackle and ran 57 yards to the ISU 7.
Forte’s run, the longest of the season by 23 yards, set up Padron’s 10-yard scoring pass to Ashton Clark that proved to be the final score. It also was Padron’s sixth TD pass of the night, tying a school record in front of a sellout crowd of 7,512 fans.
Not that Padron or Baldwin knew it at the time. “Six? Really, that’s awesome,” Baldwin said to Padron in the postgame press conference.
Padron shrugged. “Coach B made some calls that took some guts, and I’m thankful to be in this offense,” he said.
So is Kaufman, whose nine catches for 191 yards and three TDs boosted his season totals to reach No. 1 in the school and Big Sky Conference record books. Kaufman now has 84 receptions for 1,635 yards and 13 scores on the year.
All but 20 of those yards came in the second half as Eastern adjusted.
“The first half is a struggle to try to get going and trying to get a real groove going,” Kaufman said. “Once we realized that what we were getting was different from what we saw on film, we were able to settle down, get our play calls ready and convert them.”
Meanwhile, the defense was struggling against a balanced offense led by Missouri Valley Conference Offensive MVP Matt Brown, who was protected by the biggest offensive line the Eagles have faced this year.
The Redbirds piled up 280 yards in the first half, while Brown was 14 for 20 for 217 yards. In the second half, he was only 13 for 28 for 152 yards and two interceptions.
“The biggest piece is getting to third-and-long so you can dial up something,” said Eastern defensive line coach Ryan Swayer. “The first half, it was all third-and-short and there’s only so much you can do. They’re really athletic and real tight splits, so it’s really tough.”
The Eagle defense finally caught a break midway through the third quarter. Kaufman had just given the Eagles their first-two score lead of the game on a diving, 47-yard TD catch with 11:16 left in the third quarter, and Brown felt a burden to respond.
Brown looked left and threw toward running back Darrelyn Dunn, but Eastern linebacker Ronnie Hamlin stepped in front of Dunn for an easy interception.
“I had to get to the flat, that was my (zone) coverage area,” Hamlin explained. “He (Brown) must not have seen me, because I just had to run and catch it.”
Said Brown, “As soon as I threw it, it was one of those things where you knew exactly what you were doing and then all of a sudden you don’t. I didn’t get a good look at the defensive coverage and they did a good job all day trying to mix things up and trying to confuse us in the second half.”
On the next play, Padron threw a high pass that almost dropped into Kaufman’s arms in the back of the end zone. Eastern led 38-17, and the rout was seemingly on.
But on its next three possessions Illinois State (9-4) scored a field goal and two touchdowns, racking up 153 yards while holding Eastern to seven plays that netted minus-7 yards.
“Sometimes we get a little lulled to sleep once we get a lead,” defensive end Jerry Ceja said. “When you get up that like you get a little complacent. But what separates us from other teams is the fact that we step it up when we have to.”
Even after the Eagles took a 51-35 lead, the defense maintained the two-score advantage with several key stops late in the game. On third-and-10, from the Illinois State 24, linebacker Zach Johnson and defensive end Evan Day forced a bad throw from Brown.
After Eastern went three-and-out on its next possession and ISU picked up a first down at the Eastern 28, the Eagles clawed back as Hamlin and Ceja sacked Brown for a 4-yard loss.
The game was all but won on the next play when Brown threw behind receiver Phil Dudley and the Eagles took over on their own 23 with 3:11 to play.
“I was so proud of our guys on defense for the opportune times they made plays,” Baldwin said. “Again, there will be things we need to correct on film, but I love correcting stuff on film when there are only four teams left in the country.”
Tickets for Saturday’s FCS semifinal game against Sam Houston State will go on sale starting Monday at 10 a.m. For fans who agreed to purchase tickets to all three playoff games, the cost is $20 for premium seating in sections C&D, $15 for sections A/B/E&F, $15 for end zone and $10 for east-side seating (behind visitor bench) The cost will be $5 more per ticket for first-time buyers. Tickets may be purchased via www.ticketswest.com or 1-800-325-Seat.