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Friday, August 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Blanchette: EWU’s Kaufman simply best player on field

Sports columnist John Blanchette. (SR)
Sports columnist John Blanchette. (SR)

Beau Baldwin tacks up signs in his locker room like “Adversity’s coming,” as if to court danger. He hunch-plays two quarterbacks like a Vegas parlay junkie. His defense is a mathematical Maalox moment, but the stops always seem to trump the stats.

Eastern Washington’s latest season of football destiny could just as well be a sequel to “Risky Business.”

How liberating it must be, then, to always have the best player on the field.

The Eagles launched their campaign for another FCS title Saturday at Roos Field with a 29-19 victory over the Wagner Seahawks, whose resilience and resourcefulness probably shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, they’d been through Hurricane Sandy. They were supposed to wilt on a breezy day in Cheney just because they had to come 2,100 miles and spot the Eagles 23 scholarships?

Brandon Kaufman didn’t score a single point for the Eagles this day, unless you count tipping points.

And still you didn’t dare take your eyes off him, not that you can – a 6-foot-5 receiver flying downfield against some overmatched defender that looks to be half his size. Although that single physical bonanza tends to mask everything else that makes him remarkable.

“Big guys – you think of them as jump-ball guys,” Baldwin said. “There’s a lot more about Brandon that’s special.”

And the Seahawks left with an appreciation for every bit of it. By day’s end, Kaufman had – with the help of quarterback Kyle Padron and the rest of Eastern’s squadron of flyboys who demand attention, too – carved up the visitors for 174 yards on 10 catches. Exactly half of those yards came on third down.

The yards you need the most. The “killer mentality” yards.

“You have to think you’re better than the other person,” Kaufman said, “and trust what you’re doing all week and all year, studying film and what you’re working on in practice. If you do it right, you’ve beaten your guy already all through the week.”

Yes, the Eagles needed to do more to beat Staten Island’s finest than just trot No. 1 out there, though they found their usual ways to make it interesting. The Seahawks’ strategy was simple: don’t screw it up. They played a conservative zone against the pass, and for the ninth time in 10 games, they made it through 60 minutes without a turnover.

Eastern’s a little too wild and fun for that, and if the defense doesn’t force Wagner into trying four field goals, it’s the Seahawks parachuting into beautiful Normal, Ill., next Saturday instead of the Eags hosting Illinois State in the FCS quarterfinals.

Or if Kaufman had overslept or something.

The juggling, below-the-knees snag he made of a Padron pass for 47 yards that led to Eastern’s go-ahead-for-good touchdown was the “ooh” elicitor among his Saturday collection. But every bit as spectacular was the slant to the middle he turned into a 45-yarder, eluding no fewer than four tacklers. And even some of the shorter-yardage stuff was impressive, if not for the catches then for the precision in getting open.

“He’s a route runner,” Baldwin explained. “That was what attracted me to him when I went and watched him – how good his feet were for a 6-5 guy in high school. Of course, he didn’t play his senior year because he blew out his knee – which is one of the reasons we have him here.”

Kaufman’s body hasn’t always been his friend, notably in 2011 when he played just four games before surgery to repair a broken hand and a knee resulted in his getting a do-over junior season this fall. Even then, he played much of the year with another broken bone in his hand, Baldwin noted.

As it is, Kaufman is 50 catches and 800 yards behind Eric Kimble on EWU’s career list. Keish Levingston and Jeff Ogden averaged more yards per catch. Even teammate Nicholas Edwards has more touchdowns.

But Kaufman is likely to be the program’s measuring stick, from now on.

It’s not so rare that rich-school talents wind up at middle-class places like Eastern. It’s a given that the two in-state would covet him now, and the high school injury that scared off Arizona State and others was once a motivating chip on Kaufman’s shoulder.

Not so much now.

“It’s long gone,” he said. “People who don’t know me, when we end up talking and I tell them the whole story, say, ‘I bet they wish they had you now.’ But this place couldn’t have treated me better, and what we’ve been able to accomplish is something I just wouldn’t trade.”

It’s liberating, too, to find a niche – if being the best guy on the field can be called a niche.

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