It was a little weird, Calin Criner admitted, to take to Roos Field last weekend without linebacker Jack Sendelbach, on senior day, no less.
“When we jog out on the field, you always hear him cracking jokes,” the safety Criner said, “so it’s different when you don’t see that out there.”
Not that Sendelbach was disengaged, though. Far from it.
“Jack’s also one of those guys that even when he’s not playing, you still know he’s there,” Criner said. “Like after my interception (against Montana State), he’s the one jumping the highest. He’s the first one to get to me when I get to the sidelines.”
Criner, Sendelbach and linebacker Ty Graham are the only seniors who start this year for Eastern Washington’s defense. All three are captains and are almost always together, Criner said.
But with a third of the trio relegated to the sidelines, the Eagles lost that game to the Montana State Bobcats 23-20, their second in a row after losing to Weber State two weeks prior. Sendelbach missed the end of that game against the Wildcats with an injury.
So again, the Eagles (7-2, 4-2 Big Sky) will be looking to get their eighth win Saturday at No. 6 UC Davis (8-1, 5-1) in seventh-ranked Eastern’s second consecutive game against another top-10 team.
Sendelbach is expected to return, reuniting him with Graham, Criner and the rest of an Eagles’ defense that faces another unique challenge against a shifty UC Davis offense. Their performance will again be important as the Eagles’ offense will look to get back to its early-season form in a game that will determine much about Eastern’s playoff positioning – and just might determine their playoff fate, period.
“We’ve got to be great with our eyes, our technique,” Graham said during media availability on Tuesday.
“(The Aggies) like to get into formations that are tricky for your eyes, that will get you out of your normal base defense as well.”
But at the end of the day, Graham said, it’s football, and if he and his teammates stick to doing what they need to do in their roles, stopping that Davis offense won’t be as tricky as it might seem.
Junior linebacker Cale Lindsay, who started in Sendelbach’s place, agreed with Graham’s sentiment.
“A lot of smoke and mirrors from what we’ve seen,” Lindsay said. “They like to motion guys around and confuse our eyes a bit … with a week of practice and some determination and really (getting) keyed in on our keys, focused on our formations, things of that nature, it’ll slow the game down for all of us and really simplify it.”
Perhaps the most obvious move Davis makes is that it likes to use multiple quarterbacks, something that many Big Sky teams have done this season. Junior Hunter Rodrigues began the season as the starter but hasn’t played since Oct. 16. Redshirt freshman Miles Hastings has replaced him as starter since.
But even when Rodrigues was starting, Hastings still played, and on this week’s depth chart Hastings, Rodrigues and redshirt freshman Trent Tompkins are all listed at quarterback with an ‘OR’ between each of them.
On top of that, junior wide receiver Carson Crawford has attempted four passes this season – and three of them went for touchdowns.
“We do feel like we have a lot of multidimensional players, and Carson’s one of them,” UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins said during his weekly media availability.
“We like to use our full roster. We like to be creative. … That’s been a big part of what we’ve always done,” Hawkins said. “I hate the term ‘starters.’ I hate it, because it doesn’t mean anything. It’s about contributors and how (you can) get guys in a position where they do things well consistently and utilize them. And so we’re always trying to utilize our full roster.”
Every position on the Davis depth chart has an ‘OR’ between the names listed, even the kickers, punters and long snappers.
There are no such listings on Eastern Washington’s chart.
Still, the Eagles have used a steady rotation along the defensive line throughout games, and to some degree the other positions, as well.
Last week, for example, safeties Criner, Ely Doyle and Anthany Smith played in each combination.
For the most part, though, Criner, Sendelbach and Graham have been constants for the Eagles defense. They are third, second and first, respectively, in tackles. Criner leads the team in breakups (seven). Behind team-leader Joshua Jerome, the lineman who leads the team in tackles for loss with 14, Sendelbach (10) and Graham (nine) are next.
The three are also constants in Graham and Criner’s apartment, where Sendelbach always seems to be, too, even though he doesn’t live there, Criner said.
“We’re great friends off the field,” Criner said. “We do most things together. That allows us to talk about how we want to lead this team together. By no means is it any one of us at any time. It’s all three of us sending the same message.”
There is no greater indicator of Criner’s role as a leader than his jersey No. 4, which is given annually to the player who best embodies the characteristics of defense at Eastern: grit, toughness, effort, leadership and academic success.
It was a distinction Criner wanted to work toward as soon as he stepped on campus.
“When I found that it was a tradition we do here, that was my goal,” Criner said, “to put myself in a position to earn that from my peers and my coaches.
“It meant the world to me,” he said of receiving the number. “It motivated me to step up my game to a different level.”
Doyle, the redshirt sophomore who has played alongside Criner all season, said his older teammate has helped accelerate his own maturation and learning of the defense.
“He’s been very important. He knows the defense well,” Doyle said last month. “(Criner has) been right there at my side, telling me, catching me up … he’s been that guy that I really appreciate throughout that whole process.”
With Criner, Graham and Sendelbach leading the defense, the unit has improved statistically over 2019, the last full Big Sky season.
That year, the Eagles gave up 445 yards per game, but through nine games this year that number is 387 – right in the middle of the conference rankings.
“They’re pretty aggressive. They’re pretty athletic,” Hawkins said of the EWU defense. “They all run. They run to the ball. They’re good football players that way. There’s no stiff guys, they’re athletic, they can run.”
At the core of that is a senior trio hoping to keep the season going into December.
“They’ve been great captains,” Lindsay said. “They keep the motor running.”
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