Cheney, WA (Sports Network) - Injuries decimated the Eastern Washington football team last season, less than a year after the Eagles won their first FCS national title.
It's not easy to pick which was the most hurtful among the many injuries, but it is likely hard to look beyond All-America wide receiver Brandon Kaufman being lost to a broken metatarsal after four games.
He's come back in a huge way this season, and on Saturday he caught three of Kyle Padron's six touchdown passes in Eastern Washington's 51-35 victory over Illinois State in the national quarterfinals.
Kaufman, who finished with nine receptions for 191 yards, caught two of his touchdowns while the Eagles built a 21-point lead in the third quarter. His final one - a 76-yarder in the fourth quarter - answered Illinois State's rally after the Redbirds had pulled within three points.
The win put Eastern Washington back in the national semifinals for the second time in three seasons. The second-seeded Eagles (11-2) will host unseeded Sam Houston State (10-3) next weekend, with the winner advancing to the FCS championship game on Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas. Sam Houston State was the national runner-up last season.
Eastern Washington knows quite a bit about Frisco as well, having beaten Delaware in the 2010 title game. Kaufman caught two touchdowns in the victory.
As the Eagles eliminated Illinois State (9-4), Padron completed 19-of-33 pass attempts for 358 yards and one interception. His favorite receiver was Kaufman, a 6-foot-5 junior who has caught 84 receptions and 13 touchdowns on a Big Sky-record 1,635 yards this season.
Eastern Washington had to withstand the second-half rally by Illinois State. The Eagles, who won a share of the Big Sky Conference title for the second time in three seasons, scored 28 unanswered points to turn a 17-10 deficit early in the second quarter to a 38-17 lead early in the third quarter.
But Illinois State scored 18 straight points in a 6-minute, 19-minute span to climb within 38-35 early in the fourth quarter.
Perhaps while the Redbirds were likely still reveling in Matt Brown's touchdown run and pass for a 2-point conversion with 13:55 left to play, Eastern Washington answered on the third play of its ensuing drive - the Padron-to-Kaufman 76-yard touchdown connection to vault the Eagles to a 44-35 left with 12:14 left. The score stayed there when Jimmy Pavel missed the extra point.
But Padron threw his sixth touchdown pass on Eastern Washington's next drive, a 10-yard pass to Ashton Clark to increase the lead to 51-35 with 7:42 left.
Illinois State's comeback from a 38-17 deficit started with Nick Aussieker's second field goal of the game, a 26-yarder with 5:14 left in the third quarter.
Brown's 22-yard touchdown pass to Lechein Neblett on the Redbirds' next possession then pulled them within 38-27 at the 3:03 mark of the third quarter.
Eastern Washington's 28-point run, starting with a Demitrius Bronson 1-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter, allowed the Eagles to reverse a 17-10 deficit and take control with a 38-17 lead early in the third quarter.
Two Illinois State turnovers proved vital in the run.
Eastern Washington's Jordan Tonani recovered a fumble by Redbirds wide receiver James O'Shaughnessy at the Eagles' 8-yard line to deny the visitors the chance to break a 17-17 tie late in the second quarter.
Eastern Washington then drove 79 yards for the go-ahead score, a Padron 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Zack Gehring with 10 seconds left in the quarter, which provided a 24-17 halftime lead for the Eagles.
Padron then threw a 47-yard touchdown pass to Kaufman to give Eastern Washington a 31-17 lead with 11:16 left in the third quarter.
On Illinois State's ensuing play, Eastern Washington linebacker Ronnie Hamlin intercepted Brown at the Redbirds' 26 and returned the ball to the 17.
Padron and Kaufman went right to work, connecting on a 17-yard touchdown pass on the next play to increase the Eagles' lead to 38-17 with 11:01 left in the quarter.
The game was tied twice and the lead changed hands three times in the first half before Eastern Washington took a 24-17 lead into halftime. Included was Padron's 44-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Johnson for the Eagles' first touchdown.
Brown, the Missouri Valley Football Conference offensive player of the year, finished 27-for-48 for 373 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions.
Illinois State outgained Eastern Washington, 520 yards to 478.