Eastern Washington will have hands full

CHENEY — Bring it on.

That sums up Eastern Washington’s view of Sam Houston State’s aggressive defense.

“I expect it and I don’t expect them to change that much,” Eagles coach Beau Baldwin said of the Bearkats’ high-risk, high-reward approach that includes man-to-man coverage and frequent blitzes.

Matched against Eastern’s explosive passing attack, it’s a strategy that practically guarantees an exciting game in today’s Football Championship Subdivision semifinal game at Roos Field.

The reward? A spot in the FCS national championship game Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas.

“We’re not going to change,” said Sam Houston State safety Darnell Taylor, who just picked up his second-straight All-America honor this week from The Sports Network.

“We’re going to run man and we’re going to blitz,” Taylor promised. “And they better hope they’re ready for it.”

The Bearkats’ aggressiveness has paid off all year: 31 sacks, including a team-high seven by Taylor’s twin brother, linebacker Darius Taylor.

Sam Houston also has 84 tackles for loss.

“I give them credit, they’ve done it all year,” Baldwin said. “We get excited because it’s a lot of man coverage and you’ve got to make big plays against man coverage.”

Last week against Illinois State, the Eagles struggled for much of the second half; they had negative yardage on three possessions as the Redbirds cut a 21-point lead to three. Then Eastern reaped the reward: quarterback Kyle Padron hit wide receiver Brandon Kaufman for a 57-yard TD pass that turned the game sharply in the Eagles’ favor.

For the most part, Padron has thrived against man coverage. It doesn’t hurt to have a trio of tall receivers in the 6-foot-5 Kaufman, plus Nick Edwards and Greg Herd, both 6-3.

Kaufman has been the main target in the playoffs; he has a combined 19 catches for 365 yards and three TDs against Wagner and Illinois State. But in those same two games, Padron has spread the ball to nine other receivers for a combined 27 catches, another 331 yards and three TDs.

“Everyone is doing their jobs,” Baldwin said.

Padron’s numbers against Illinois State were typical against a team that played mostly man defense: he completed just 19 of 33 passes, but they went for 358 yards, and six went for touchdowns.

Sam Houston State coach Willie Fritz said he was impressed with the entire group of EWU receivers, but noted that the Bearkats have faced some prolific passing offenses already this year, including Texas A&M and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.

That game — Sam Houston’s only loss in its past 10 outings — didn’t go well; the Bearkats trailed 34-0 at halftime as Manziel threw for one TD and ran for two more.

No shame in that, but against Southland Conference rival Stephen F. Austin on Sept. 27, the Bearkats gave up 545 yards passing in a 51-43 win over a team that finished 5-6.

Padron characterized the Bearkat defense as “flying around to the ball. They take pride in playing man, so we just have to be efficient.”

For the Eastern offensive line, the challenge will come all day.

“They’re very sound, very aggressive, in your face,” Eagles line coach Aaron Best said. “They did it against Baylor, they did it against Texas A&M, so why wouldn’t they do it against Eastern Washington?”

At some point, adjustments will be made, depending on who has the upper hand. Fritz said his team will mix in some zone and zone blitz as well, regardless of the score.

Baldwin said he expects as much.

“But we’re going to feel it out during the game,” he said. “We have our plan.”

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