Before Eastern Washington safety Calin Criner’s closet was full of red and black garb, the sophomore’s allegiance was to a charter Big Sky Conference member 77 miles down the road.
From fourth grade to his freshman year at Moscow High, Criner shadowed his father, Mark Criner, Idaho’s defensive coordinator from 2007-12.
“I pretty much lived at the Kibbie Dome,” said Criner, who tallied 11 tackles in a 14-6 loss to Weber State two week ago.
On Saturday, Criner and the fifth-ranked Eagles (5-2, 3-1 Big Sky) will face the Vandals (3-4, 2-2) at noon at Roos Field, the first time the teams have met in Cheney since 1994.
Idaho, which bumped up to the FBS level in 1996 before returning to the FCS this season, has faced EWU twice in the 2000s, the last meeting a 20-3 Eagles win in Moscow in 2012 when Mark Criner was on the Vandals’ staff.
Criner, who said he received some recruiting interest from Idaho while starring his senior year at Rocky Mountain High School near Boise, is looking forward to facing a program in which he has years of history.
“It’ll be fun, especially being from Idaho and living in Moscow and Boise, and seeing it from different angles,” said Criner, a member of a EWU defense that’s surrendered just 18.2 points per game against Big Sky opposition. “Especially with my dad and grandpa coaching at Idaho and Boise State.
“I’ve kind of seen both sides of this, so this will be a really fun game for me.”
His Idaho football-rich bloodline goes far beyond the Vandals.
Mark Criner, who has coached at several Division I programs and played at Boise State, was a linebackers coach at Eastern Michigan in 2013, and his son transferred from Moscow to Saline High in Michigan where he was an all-state selection. He spent his senior year in Boise living with his relative, Scott Criner, Rocky Mountain High’s then-head football coach, where they won a state title in 2015.
Calin’s grandfather, Jim Criner, was the head coach at Boise State when it was a member of Big Sky Conference and won a I-AA (now FCS) championship in 1980 before a stint as the head coach at Iowa State.
Jim Criner’s brother, the late Herb Criner, was a legendary Idaho High School football coach who led Coeur d’Alene to a state title in 1982 before he was an assistant and administrator at Boise State.
The younger Criner is playing his college ball away from the Gem State, though, and is reluctant to call EWU’s contest with Idaho this week a rivalry game, considering the programs have faced off just four times in his lifetime.
“I think it’ll take some time (before it’s a rivalry),” he said.
On Tuesday before practice, metal bleachers were being constructed on the south end zone for the game, which EWU announced as a sellout.
“It’s exciting,” Criner said. “I know a lot of people are asking for tickets. It’s going to be a cool environment, especially with so many friends and family coming.”
It’s been nearly a month since EWU All-American quarterback Gage Gubrud injured his foot in a 34-17 win at Montana State.
After sitting out two games with a protective boot, Gubrud was in full pads on Tuesday following a bye week, and he was getting reps with the first-team offense.
The boot was off, too.
EWU head coach Aaron Best said he won’t know the status of Gubrud for the game with Idaho until Wednesday.
“We’re going to give it the go today,” Best said. “But he’s in pads today like everyone else, so (Wednesday ) is the day (if Gubrud will be cleared to play or not).
“We thought we would have more of an idea now, but unfortunately that’s not the case. We’re going to practice today, see how feels tomorrow, then go from there.”
The bye week also let other Eagles heal up.
EWU starting safety Tysen Prunty, who missed the last two games with an injury, was back in practice, as well as starting left tackle Beau Byus, who didn’t play against Weber State because of an injury.
Starting right tackle Chris Schlichting and starting safety Mitch Fettig, who both went down with injuries against Weber State, were also practicing.
Wide receiver Zach Eagle was on crutches and won’t return until late in the season, according to Best. All-Big Sky left tackle Tristen Taylor, also on crutches, is out for the season.
EWU’s leading rusher, running back Sam McPherson, said he was limited against Weber State with three carries because he wasn’t feeling well.
Tight end Henderson Belk said his team took advantage of the break last week.
“The bye came at a great time in the latter half of the season, because we had multiple guys banged up,” Belk said. “Most of the older guys didn’t even practice last week. Mostly, everybody should be back to full strength.”
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.