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Eastern Washington University Football
Sports >  EWU football

EWU Notebook: Special teams failures doom the Eagles in loss to Weber State

UPDATED: Sat., Oct. 23, 2021

Weber State recovers a fumble by EWU running back Dennis Merritt (6) during the first half of a college football game, Sat, Oct. 23, 2021, at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Weber State recovers a fumble by EWU running back Dennis Merritt (6) during the first half of a college football game, Sat, Oct. 23, 2021, at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Justin Reed and Dan Thompson

The late NFL Hall of Fame head coach George Allen once said, “Football is one-third offense, one-third defense and one-third special teams.”

On Saturday at Roos Field in Cheney, Eastern Washington received an “F” for its special teams play.

The Eagles allowed three fake punts to be converted into first downs, leading to 13 points as well as a missed extra point with 2:51 left in the game that kept the score 35-34 in favor of Weber State.

In February, special teams coordinator Heath Pulver left the program to pursue other opportunities. Pulver had been a coach with the Eagles for almost a decade, including four as the coordinator.

That left the rest of the coaching staff to take over special teams duties, as the Eagles took a committee approach on that side of the ball. That structure has been in place since the spring and head coach Aaron best said he doesn’t believe that less focus has been given to the special teams.

“We’ve done a good job up to this point, it’s just, the exposed piece in that element was hard to watch,” Best said. “So, we need to look at that as soon as we can because obviously it was something that they exposed, that they looked at, and said ’It’s something we’re going to try to take advantage of’ and they did today.”

Each fake was designed and implemented differently. The first was a direct snap to an upback, the second was a run by the punter and the third was a pass from the punter to a lineman.

“One (fake) is difficult to call, two was even harder to call, three – I don’t know if I have ever seen that in a game – so they saw something, they attacked that something, they believed in that something,” Best said.

In the second quarter, Mitchel Maxfield, a redshirt freshman linebacker out of Emmett, Idaho, took the direct snap on 4th and 3. He rushed seven yards to pick up the first down.

That led to a Wildcat field goal, drawing them within three, 13-10.

Eastern did call a timeout before the fake, thinking that Weber St. head coach Jay Hill might go for something game changing. The Eagles couldn’t stop the fake, even with the extra prep time during the timeout.

“(Hill) is a special teams guy, he trusts his defense,” Best said. “When you trust your defense that much, you’re willing to kind of roll those dice in those punt situations.”

On the next Weber St. drive, punter Mackenzie Morgan had a 10-yard rush to set up another field goal for the Wildcats.

Four plays later and the Wildcats kicked a field goal as time expired in the first half.

The final converted fake punt was the second play of the fourth quarter on fourth and four. Morgan found senior defensive lineman Jared Schiess for a rumbling 20-yard completion.

Six plays later, Weber St. took a 27-21 lead on a nine-yard rushing touchdown – a lead it didn’t give back.

Then, the last special teams play of the day was the possibility of tying the game at 35, but Eagles kicker Seth Harrison shanked the extra point attempt after a poor snap from redshirt junior Cody Clements.

There were a few positives on special teams that ended up not being as memorable, but surely will be replayed in film study for the successful execution.

Eastern’s kickoffs and punts were well-placed and frustrated dangerous return man Rashid Shaheed and punter Nick Kokich was consistently pinning the Wildcats deep in their territory.

Best called Shaheed one of the best and most explosive returners in college football and thought that their gameplan held him in check.

Shahee had six total returns for 58 yards, including two muffed balls, one of which almost led to an Eastern recovery.

Kokich had six punts, averaging almost 45 yards a punt, with his longest being 61 yards. He dropped two inside of the 20-yard line, including one on the two-yard line.

But as the lights faded out on Eastern’s ‘Inferno’ field after the game, the inability to diagnose and make plays on the fake punts will burn bright in the heads of the Eagles staff and players as they head on their bye week.

“We were out-executed in a lot of ways, in most ways, actually,” Best said. “Out-disciplined in a few areas and I’ll take full responsibility for that. I’m the leader and we were prepared but not as prepared as we would have thought.”

Barriere held in check

While the Weber State Wildcats held quarterback Eric Barriere in check better than any other football team this season in their 35-34 victory over Eastern Washington on Saturday, the senior still climbed to the top of the Big Sky record books.

Barriere threw for a season-low 245 yards on 19 of 39 attempts but ran a season-high 11 times for 85 yards. That total moved him past former Eastern Washington quarterback Matt Nichols into first place on the Big Sky’s career total yardage list with 13,558.

He now ranks seventh all-time among Football Championship Subdivision quarterbacks, 3,265 yards shy of Steve McNair’s record.

A team that plays primarily man-to-man defense, the Wildcats – who came in allowing just 151 passing yards per game – also rarely rushed more than a handful of players against Barriere. That gave him more room to scramble.

The Wildcats never did sack him, but they also held him to his lowest completion percentage of the season. The last time he completed fewer than 50% of his passes was against Idaho, the second time the teams played last spring.

Barriere has 12,051 passing yards in his career, the 16th most all-time among FCS quarterbacks.

Weber grinds away at Eastern’s defense

Weber State’s primary battering ram on Saturday was sophomore running back Kris Jackson, who finished with a season-high 93 yards on 19 carries. Jackson entered the game with just 15 carries all season.

The Wildcats finished with 213 yards and scored four touchdowns on 53 carries, more rushes than any other team had attempted against the Eagles this year.

“I wouldn’t say we were tired,” Eagles sophomore defensive lineman Joshua Jerome said. “The big thing that hurt us was we got out of our gaps, got out of our scheme, and that’s really what happened.”

Like Weber’s, Eastern’s offense improved its season rushing average, with 189 yards on 37 carries, but much of that was from Barriere; Merritt finished with a season-low 30 yards on the ground, and no one else had more than Micah Smith’s 28 yards.

“We were scratching and clawing for things to work,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said of the offense.

Anthany Smith returns

After missing the first seven games, Eagles senior safety Anthany Smith made his season debut for the Eagles and made an impact while doing so.

He played sparsely in the first half but then played most of the second half and finished with eight tackles, fifth-most for the Eagles. He replaced sophomore Ely Doyle – who finished with four tackles – alongside senior Calin Criner, who led the team with 12 tackles and also recovered a fumble.

Smith was a first-team all-conference selection last spring and was named the Eagles’ defensive MVP. In 2019, he missed all but three games with an injury.

Led by junior Debore’ae McClain’s two sacks, the Eagles had five against Weber State and now have 21 on the season, tied for second-most among Big Sky teams.

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