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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Blanchette: Padron a feel-good story

The drilling, the repetitions, the video sessions until the eyeballs bleed.

The conditioning, the steamy August waltz in the weight room, the endless spring practices when the games seem so far off you can’t see them with the Hubble.

Preparation. It’s the protein of football.

And yet the game wouldn’t be any fun without feel.

Seen your three-touchdown lead all but wiped out in the space of six minutes? Time to circle the wagons? Play it safe?

Nah. Time to heave it downfield and trust in your talent.

This was where Eastern Washington’s playoff drama against Illinois State took its final plot twist of any consequence Saturday, with a 76-yard touchdown hookup between Kyle Padron to Brandon Kaufman early in the fourth quarter. The Redbirds, having scrapped back to within three points from what had looked like a lost cause, were suddenly out of answers and eventually fell, 51-35, putting the Eagles 60 minutes from their second appearance in the FCS championship game in three years.

But in yet another Eastern season of living on the (winning) edge, a strain of heresy has given this one its own unique feel.

Yes, the quarterback business.

Though it seems to so straightforward now. In the Eagles’ two playoff victories, Padron has been on the field for all but six offensive snaps and thrown for just shy of 700 yards. On Saturday, he equaled a school record with six touchdown passes, a BMOC stat if ever we’ve seen one.

Almost forgotten is the fact that he was a sideline counselor-cheerleader-play signaler in arguably Eastern’s three biggest wins of the Big Sky Conference season: Montana, Montana State and Cal Poly.

How is it the NBA box scores read? DNP-coach’s decision?

Pretty humbling for an FBS transfer – drop-downs, they’re called – who was once a bowl game MVP. Or it would have been, had the cause been lack of production.

If you’ve followed the Eagles at all this season, you’re aware of the hunch player’s swagger coach Beau Baldwin has leaned on when choosing his quarterback.

First it was Padron, the newcomer from SMU. Then it was Padron and mercurial freshman Vernon Adams in tandem. Then it was just Adams. Then the two of them. Adams again. Then back to the time share.

All along, Baldwin has stuck to a single dictum:

“I’m blessed to have two great quarterbacks,” he said again Saturday, “but in every moment or situation, my goal is to play the guy who gives us the best chance to win.”

Down two touchdowns to Portland State in the second quarter of the regular season finale, Baldwin tossed the keys to Padron, who has more or less been in the driver’s seat since. Adams got in for one brief possession Saturday, which is not to say he won’t get a bigger chance next Saturday against Sam Houston State in the FCS semifinals.

And yet it seems very much like Padron’s time. His two TD passes to Kaufman in the third quarter were ridiculous for their placement and touch, and then there was how he handled the heat.

Once the Redbirds staggered and fell behind 38-17, they threw every manner of blitz they could come up with in addition to the salty rush by their down four. At one point, backup free safety Dontae McCoy blew in untouched for a sack; he hadn’t had a tackle for loss all season.

It was the very next play when – in the face of more pressure – Padron lobbed it up along the right sideline to Kaufman, who stepped through Matt Goldsmith’s tackle and dashed away for the will-killing touchdown.

This after two rather ugly looking three-and-outs.

“But I feel like every game is kind of a rhythm game,” Padron said. “Last week against Wagner, early on, I wasn’t in in one – there was a little rust from the bye week. This week, we started pretty fast. You’d always like to capitalize on a few more throws, but a lot of that had to do with all the pressure Illinois State was bringing.”

Rhythm can be harder to find in a shuttle system, too, but the most remarkable thing about Padron – and Adams – has been their gracious embrace of it. Sensing no politics or agenda – because there isn’t one, beyond winning – they have been model soldiers.

That’s earned Baldwin’s admiration. On Saturday, Padron earned more.

“We know he has talent and can throw the ball,” Baldwin said, “but what impressed me today was his courage and toughness in just hanging in there. And that’s what it takes. They’re in his face and he’s taking shots and still putting the ball where guys can make plays.”

That’s playmaking, too. And damned nice playmaking – a DNP with a more redemptive feel.