PORTLAND – The Eastern Washington players weathered the storm Saturday afternoon, then soaked it all in.
Another comeback win, a Big Sky Conference football title, a likely high seed in the upcoming FCS playoffs – all earned in typical fashion in a 41-34 victory over Portland State.
“It’s just an amazing feeling to come back and win a Big Sky title, especially here,” said senior captain Will Post, surrounded in the stands by hometown family and friends at rain-soaked Jen-Weld Field.
The Eagles (9-2 overall, 7-1 Big Sky) will learn their playoff fate soon enough – the brackets will be announced this morning at 10:30 on ESPNU. Most likely, they will earn a high seed good enough for a first-round bye and a home game in the second round on Dec. 1 and probably the quarterfinals on Dec. 7-8.
With the rèsumé now submitted for approval to the selection committee, it was time to enjoy the moment.
“Big Sky championships are hard to come by,” head coach Beau Baldwin reminded the media after the game. “Sometimes you forget, because you’re two years removed from a national title, how special it is to win a Big Sky title.”
Eastern will share the glory with Montana State and Cal Poly, but the Eagles get the automatic playoff bid from the Big Sky because they own wins over both rivals.
Not surprisingly, for a team that has played eight games decided by a touchdown or less, this one came down to the final seconds. With the Vikings at midfield with a minute to play, Eagles defensive end Jerry Ceja got a piece of quarterback Kieran McDonagh’s arm and the ball hung in the air before linebacker Zach Johnson gathered it in for his second interception of the game.
“That was all Jerry, and I just waited for the ball,” Johnson said after the Eagles twice overcame Portland State leads of 13 and 12 points, the second with barely 6 minutes left in the third quarter.
With its running game stymied – the Eagles would finish with zero yards net rushing – Baldwin went back to the Eagles’ strength: big plays in the passing game by “The Trio” of Brandon Kaufman, Greg Herd and Nicholas Edwards.
They combined for 346 yards receiving and a host of highlight-reel catches despite a downpour that lasted most of the game. The team total of 463 passing yards was just enough to overcome a determined PSU team that put up a balanced 424 yards of offense.
“We made just enough plays to win,” Baldwin said.
With Eastern trailing 26-14 late in the third quarter, Padron moved the team 62 yards in four plays, including an incredible 43-yard play that saw Kaufman kick the ball into the air and catch it while prone in the end zone.
“I got by him and (the defender’s) leg got in my face,” recalled Kaufman, who finished with nine catches and 161 yards, both game-highs. “At first I didn’t see the ball come in, but I tried to kick it up and I was extremely fortunate it came down into my hands.”
That cut the Portland State lead to 26-21. Eastern got the ball back two minutes later at its own 24. On third-and-3 at his own 31, Kyle Padron hit Herd for 33 yards to the PSU 36, then found an in-stride Edwards in the end zone for the go-ahead score.
Baldwin started Vernon Adams at quarterback, but Padron came on in relief and never left. “I knew there was a chance he could play a little bit more in this game based on certain things,” Baldwin said, including Portland State’s run-focused defense.
“They had so many guys at the line of scrimmage, it was just tough to run the ball,” Baldwin said.
Padron made up the difference, finishing 26 for 38 for 381 yards and two touchdowns. “Find the hot pitcher and stay with him,” Baldwin said.
Padron wasn’t done. After a Portland State punt pinned the Eagles at their own 6, he marched them 94 yards and capped the drive with a 1-yard keeper up the middle to put Eastern ahead 41-34 with 1:25 left in the game.
Along the way, he completed all five pass attempts for 73 yards, including Kaufman’s catch at the PSU 1 against double coverage. “Kyle put it up there and floated it up,” Kaufman said. “I appreciate the pass as much as some people appreciate the catch.”
The first quarter was as dreary as the weather for Eastern, which soon trailed 13-0. After forcing a stop on PSU’s first possession, the Eagles drove into Vikings territory, but after a holding penalty, Adams and running back Daniel Johnson mistimed a pitch and Portland State recovered at the Eastern 46-yard-line.
On their next possession, the Eagles stalled at their own 36. Jake Potter’s snap sailed over the head of punter Jimmy Pavel, who alertly grabbed the ball in the end zone and threw it out of bounds. But PSU needed just seven plays to put Eastern in its biggest hole of the season, 13-0, after running back D.J. Adams scored from the 1.
It almost got worse for Eastern when Shaquille Hill fumbled the ensuing kickoff into a pile at the 24; Portland State recovered but committed a personal foul in the process. A stalled drive ended with a missed 44-yard field goal attempt early in the second quarter.
Portland State got the ball back and picked up a first down at its own 31. Two plays later, the Vikings committed a false start on third-and-1 on their own 40. A long incomplete pass forced a punt, and the Eagles’ first comeback was on.
With Padron at quarterback, the Eagles crossed midfield on two completions to Kaufman, setting up first-and-10 at the PSU 48. On the next play, Padron went down the left sideline, where Kaufman hauled in a deflected pass at the 20.
Three plays later, Padron scored his first rushing touchdown of the season on a 4-yard rollout to cut the deficit to 13-7.
Eastern took a 14-13 lead before halftime when Padron took the Eagles 42 yards in nine plays, highlighted by completions to Ashton Clark and to Kaufman. A pass-interference penalty set up Demitrius Bronson’s 4-yard touchdown run 72 seconds before intermission.