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Eastern Washington sees offense reignite under new play caller Pat McCann

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 18, 2021

Eastern Washington wide receivers coach/offensive coordinator Pat McCann, middle, celebrates with a group of his players after the Eagles defeated UNLV on Sept. 2.  (Courtesy of Pat McCann)
Eastern Washington wide receivers coach/offensive coordinator Pat McCann, middle, celebrates with a group of his players after the Eagles defeated UNLV on Sept. 2. (Courtesy of Pat McCann)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The position coach Pat McCann loves to be in is on the sidelines.

He loves the action. Loves the emotion.

But coordinator Pat McCann can’t do it. He’s got to be up in the booth.

“You have a chance to see the whole game, the whole field and what’s going on,” McCann said Tuesday. “It just takes a little of the emotion and all that out of it, all the extra stuff, and it allows you to focus on what you’re calling.”

What McCann called last week against UC Davis seemed to work out pretty well. In just the one game – a 38-20 victory that propelled the fifth-ranked Eagles (8-2, 5-2 Big Sky) into a key regular-season finale Saturday at Portland State (5-5, 4-3) – the Eagles racked up almost as many yards of offense as they did in the previous two games combined.

Against the Aggies, the Eagles gained 625 yards on a season-high 101 plays and possessed the ball for a season-high 36 minutes and 41 seconds. In losses to Weber State and Montana State, who field what are statistically the No. 2 and No. 1 passing defenses in the Big Sky Conference, Eastern had 748 yards of offense.

Following the second of those games, Ian Shoemaker, EWU’s offensive coordinator for two-plus seasons, resigned. Eastern Washington’s athletic department gave no official reason for his departure and said it would not comment on it, as it was “a personnel issue.”

After that, McCann, who was formerly – and still is – the wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator, got a couple of new titles added to his profile: interim offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. And with McCann calling plays in the booth, the Eagles got back on track against one of the more middling defenses, statistically, in the Big Sky.

McCann pointed out that “it’s not like the system was broken” and was quick to praise Shoemaker.

“I didn’t feel like I needed to make changes,” McCann said. “The biggest thing, honestly, and I think it’s play caller to play caller, (is that) you’re at your best when you’re able to be yourself. Not that something was bad, but I want it this way as opposed to this way.”

And McCann made it clear, too, that his predecessor’s influence was a positive one.

“That’s the one thing from coach Shoemaker,” McCann said. “I am more prepared because of working with Ian.”

With a new voice calling the plays, the Eagles offense had its sixth turnover-free game of the season and achieved more first downs than it had in any other game except the trouncing of Idaho – even through a dense fog that descended into UC Davis Health Stadium in the second half.

Senior receiver Andrew Boston, held to two catches in the two losses, caught seven passes for 72 yards to boost his season totals to 44 and 711. The running game, bolstered by a season-high 17 carries and 89 yards for a now-healthy senior Tamarick Pierce, amassed more than 200 yards for the fourth time this season.

And senior quarterback Eric Barriere’s stat line looked much more like that of a Walter Payton Award candidate: He completed 34 of 54 attempts – both season-highs – for 411 yards and three touchdowns, nearly matching his yardage total (459) from the previous two games.

Eastern’s offense is again ranked No. 1 in the FCS at 575.5 yards per game, and its average of 47 points per game is just shy of Southeastern Louisiana’s (48.6), which is quarterbacked by the 2020-21 Walter Payton Award winner, Cole Kelley. Barriere finished a close second for the award.

McCann said he and Barriere talked via headsets between drives on Saturday to recap the previous drive and look forward to the next one. That continued all the way to the foggy finish, when McCann’s visibility from the booth, he said, “only got worse.”

On Tuesday, Eagles head coach Aaron Best praised McCann’s management of the offense.

“At the end of the day I think we all agree: Players make plays,” Best said during media availability. “Coach McCann did an absolutely great job mixing it up.

“We just let Pat be Pat. We knew what was at stake. He knew what was at stake. We were there for him. We wanted to cloud his mind the least amount that we could as coaches and just let those players play.”

A coast-to-coast coaching journey

McCann, who grew up in Olympia, started his college career at the College of the Canyons in California, where he helped the team win a Junior College national championship in 2004. From there he transferred to Western Washington, where he played from 2007 to 2008.

He was a first-team all-conference selection his senior year, after which Western discontinued its football program. McCann still has a Western football tattoo to commemorate his time there.

After that, he began his coaching career at Division II Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he was eventually promoted to offensive coordinator. From there he moved to UC Davis, where he coached the Aggies’ wide receivers for four years, and then in 2017 he coached the same position at Northern Iowa.

It was there McCann got his second chance to be a coordinator, albeit on an interim basis, when UNI’s offensive coordinator John Bond was sidelined by a family matter. McCann called plays in three games, two of them victories.

Again he bears the interim title at Eastern; he – as well as other coaches – have taken on more duties now that the Eagles are a coach down. The Eagles have been sharing the work of coaching special teams this season rather than using one dedicated special teams coordinator.

Similar to when he was temporarily promoted at UNI, McCann is now in charge of the quarterbacks, and he said he is trying to meet with them more than he did in a similar situation with the Panthers.

He doesn’t want them to be the forgotten position group in the shuffle, he said – though having a veteran group led by Barriere and junior Gunner Talkington certainly makes his job easier.

What also makes his new job easier, he said, is that he was already embedded in the team, specifically with the passing game.

“I already had a decent amount of involvement just as far as what we did, especially in the pass game,” McCann said. “It probably was a little bit easier just because I did get to at least have a decent amount of input. Not the final say, but a decent amount of input.”

Next up for the Eagles is a game against Portland State, whose defense gave u 543 yards last week in a 49-20 loss to Sacramento State.

“Coach Pat, we commend him,” Best said, “but it’s on to the next (game).”

A victory would likely secure a first-round bye for the Eagles in the 24-team FCS playoff bracket. Another offensive performance like they had against the Aggies could demonstrate that their struggles against the Wildcats and Bobcats were, perhaps, just anomalies.

Or, perhaps, it was that the offense benefitted from a new primary voice.

It also could be a bit of both.

“We’ve got a lot of athletes, a lot of guys that can make a lot of plays,” redshirt freshman tight end Blake Gobel said during Tuesday’s media availability. “(McCann has) probably got a pretty easy job when it comes to getting good players the ball, but it’s still important, (for) three-down football, four-down football, to have a plan going forward.”

“We don’t look at it as a big change,” Gobel said. “We trust Pat, and we think he’s going to (call) the right plays at the right time.”

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