When Ian Shoemaker was handed the keys to Eastern Washington’s nationally renowned offense in February, it came with a few perks.
Shoemaker, the Eagles’ first-year offensive coordinator who’d previously gone 38-16 in five seasons as head coach at NCAA Division II Central Washington, inherited the conference’s oldest and most decorated offensive line, a half-dozen experienced receivers, a one-time All-Big Sky talent in running back Antoine Custer and a dynamic, preseason Walter Payton Award candidate in quarterback Eric Barriere.
It appeared the Eagles had the means – on paper, at least – to make another deep FCS playoff run, building off last season’s appearance in the national title game.
The addition of Shoemaker, who was coming off back-to-back conference titles with a CWU team that averaged 447 yards and 37 points a game, was widely expected to keep the ball moving in Cheney.
It has and it hasn’t.
EWU, a preseason Big Sky Conference favorite, is now 3-5 overall for the first time since 2006 and 2-2 in the conference, but the Eagles are averaging 481 yards a game to rank sixth in the FCS.
It’s also experienced a steady stream of offensive lulls, often showing flashes of the explosive group many expected in the offseason before a backbreaking dry spell, namely in road games.
Among those instances was EWU’s 45-28 early fourth-quarter lead at then-No. 16 Jacksonville State, when the Eagles totaled a meager 12 fourth-quarter yards before falling 49-45.
The following week, the Eagles trailed at oft-struggling Idaho 28-0 at halftime before flipping the switch and nearly catching the Vandals in a 35-27 loss.
At resurgent Sacramento State – now ranked No. 6 in the media poll – EWU outgained the Hornets 497-471 in a 48-27 loss.
At then-No. 10 and rival Montana last week, the Eagles led 14-3 late in the second quarter before the Grizzlies – who held the Eagles to 134 second-half yards – stormed back for a 34-17 win.
Barriere, who has completed 183 of 311 passes for 2,503 yards, 21 TDs and four interceptions, is more of a throwing quarterback in Shoemaker’s system. In the 2018 season, he was true dual threat who kept offenses guessing, averaging 43.8 rushing yards a game to go with eight touchdowns.
On the ground this season, Barriere is averaging 26 yards a game with five touchdowns.
Shoemaker, whose Eagles are preparing for a home game Saturday against Northern Arizona (4-4, 2-2), answered a few questions about his enigmatic offense on Tuesday.
The Spokesman-Review: What are some the things you’ve seen out of this offense that you like and some that you think need major improvements going forward?
Ian Shoemaker: The biggest thing is being great on third down and being great in the red zone. We’ve found some success in the 20 to 20 areas, yardage and things like that, but we have to be more consistent on third down, more consistent in the red zone.
Some of that comes from being efficient on first down, penalties, to dropped passes to whatever causes you to be off-schedule and have a lot of third-and-long situations that are difficult. Those are things I need to do a better job of and put our players in a better place to be successful.
S-R: Are you trying to rein in Barriere to help develop his passing game, namely from the pocket? Is he more dinged up this year? Why isn’t he running the ball as much, considering he is one of the best running QBs in the FCS?
IS: It’s a combination of a lot of things. There have been some times when he’s been out and dinged up and we’re trying to protect a guy that is a huge part of our offense and success. But some of the success he’s had dropping back passing has decreased some of those (run) calls and opportunities. His legs are one of our big positives, and we have to do a better job of taking advantage of them.
S-R: There are some quarters where you appear to be one of the most dynamic offenses in the country and others where you’re struggling to get anything going. Is it a mental thing? Different play-calling you’re trying to do?
IS: It’s just consistency and execution. It is a lot to do with that first first down. We get that first first down, and I think we’re pretty good. The three-and-outs are things we need to do a better job of avoiding.
S-R: You left a pretty good gig as a head coach NCAA Division II Central Washington to be the offensive coordinator at EWU this year. But being 3-5 in your first Division I job, when a lot of of pieces on offense returned, what’s that been like for you personally to not have that success you many expected?
IS: I’m invested in this kids and trying to do the best job that I can. A 3-5 record is not good enough. Winning is the expectation here. My job now is to help make us not 3-5, and what we’re all working on right now.
S-R: What’s the identity of this offense? There are games when you resemble former great EWU teams throwing it all over the field. There are times when you’re trying to run it down teams’ throats, much like 2018. Obviously, you want that balance, but if you were to say what you’re most efficient at between the two styles, what would you say?
IS: I want to be a great running team that does play-action, uses the quick game and drops back as a change-up. I think right now we’ve been depending on certain things too much. Right now, I think we need to get back to running the ball, play-action and get down the field and be as balanced as possible. When we’re doing both is when we’re at our best.
S-R: There have been drops this season, especially in last week’s loss to Montana. Is that a discipline thing? Concentration? What are you seeing?
IS: Guys need to make plays when they get their opportunity. I need to put them in positions to be more open, or make easier catches – positions that are a little less stressful. I think some of that has to with the fact our guys are pressing, trying to make every play for everybody. We have a lot of great athletes, and we have to let those plays come to us.
S-R: How would you define this receiver group? There’s a lot of strong and/or long bodies, so do you think it’s a more of a group that’s made for intermediate plays or big plays?
IS: There’s a mix. We have guys that can get open, guys that can press the vertical and guys that are route-running, position guys. We have to find the right mix to put out there at the same time.
S-R: You’ve got four games left with the potential of a 7-5, winning season and springboard that momentum in 2020. What’s it going to take to end on a hot note?
IS: Win this week. That’s all I’m thinking about.
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