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Montana vs. Eastern Washington: Eagles players to watch in 2nd round of FCS playoffs

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Griz vs. EWU 31.JPG (copy)

Montana junior linebacker Marcus Welnel (10) sacks Eastern Washington senior quarterback Eric Barriere (3) during the 34-28 loss on Oct. 2 at Roos Field in Cheney, Washington. Barriere, whose Eagles play at UM on Friday, was named the Big Sky offensive player of the year for the second straight season.

MISSOULA — Montana and Eastern Washington will combine to put 27 All-Big Sky players on the field when the teams square off in the second round of the FCS playoffs at 7 p.m. Friday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula.

The sixth-seeded Griz put 14 players on the three all-conference teams and honorable mention list. The Eagles, who beat Northern Iowa in the first round of the playoffs last week, had 13 players earn all-league recognition.

Here are the key EWU players to watch this week against UM.

Quarterback: Eric Barriere, No. 3

The 6-foot-1, 210-pound senior from Inglewood, California, has tapered off production-wise since UM and EWU played in October, but he still was named the Big Sky offensive player of the year while totaling 41 TD passes compared to seven INTs. Barriere is averaging 294.6 passing yards over the past five games after averaging 438.1 in the first seven games. He became the league’s all-time leader in passing yards, passing TDs and total offense this fall. In FCS history, he’s now third in total offense, sixth in passing yards and ninth in passing TDs for his career.

Running back: Dennis Merritt, No. 6

The 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior running back from Leavenworth, Washington, earned second-team All-Big Sky recognition this fall after he was an all-league honorable mention in the spring. Merritt ranks fifth in the Big Sky with 71.1 rushing yards per game, while his 14 rushing TDs lead the Big Sky and rank ninth in the FCS. He hasn’t rushed for 100 yards since he ran for 103 against UM, which was his third time in the first five games that he reached 100 yards. Merritt did have his best receiving game on Oct. 16 vs. Idaho, when he had 102 of his 368 receiving yards this year.

Wide receiver: Talolo Limu-Jones, No. 1

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior from Vallejo, California, was a first-team All-Big Sky receiver for the second straight year after being a second-team All-American in the spring. Limu-Jones still leads the league with 90.7 receiving yards per game despite missing two games due to an injury against UM. He had a season-high 231 receiving yards vs. the Griz but averaged 75.1 yards in the other nine games. EWU had three other receivers earn All-Big Sky recognition: Andrew Boston made the second team, and Efton Chism and Freddie Roberson were on the third team.

Offensive line: Tristen Taylor, No. 65

The 6-foot-6, 320-pound senior left tackle from Stockton, California, earned first-team All-Big Sky honors this fall, making him the rare five-time all-league pick in his career. Taylor, who was a first-team All-American in the spring, is the Eagles’ all-time leader in starts (59) and games played (59). He began the season playing left tackle but has recently played right tackle as the Eagles shuffled their line, using six different lineups in 12 games. Wyatt Musser, who picked up third-team All-Big Sky honors, was the only lineman to start every game at the same spot.

Defensive line: Joshua Jerome, No. 55

The 6-foot-1, 280-pound sophomore defensive tackle from Monroe, Washington, went from being an All-Big Sky honorable mention in the spring to being a third-team pick this fall. Jerome ranks 10th in the conference with 1.17 tackles for loss per game as he’s totaled a team-high 14 in 12 games. He also leads the team with 6.5 sacks and is fourth with 56 tackles despite playing on the interior of the line. Jerome also paces the Eagles with six QB hurries and three forced fumbles. Defensive end Mitchell Johnson was also a third-team pick, his third All-Big Sky honor.

Linebacker: Ty Graham, No. 18

The 6-foot, 210-pound senior linebacker from Cheney, Washington, got All-Big Sky honorable mention status for the second straight season after he transferred from Idaho, where he began his career when the Vandals were an FBS team. Graham leads the Eagles and is seventh in the Big Sky with 8.9 tackles per game. Senior Jack Sendelbach, who earned third-team All-Big Sky honors, is eighth in the league with 8.8 tackles per game despite missing two games. Graham has added 8.5 TFLs, three sacks and one INT, while Sendelbach has 10.5 TFLs and one sack.

Cornerback/safety: Calin Criner, No. 4

The 5-foot-10, 185-pound senior safety from Boise, Idaho, earned his first All-Big Sky honors, being named a third-team selection this fall. Criner has nine interceptions in his career and ranks in the top 20 in school history for career tackles while playing in 53 games and making 31 starts. He’s third on EWU with 78 tackles, having shown his hard-hitting nature despite being short in stature when he had nine tackles against UM. Criner has also intercepted two passes, broken up a team-high nine passes, recovered a team-best two fumbles and forced one fumble.

Special teams: Wyatt Hawkins, No. 22

The 6-foot-1, 170-pound freshman from Carlsbad, California, was clutch on the playoff stage last week when he went 2 of 2 on his first FG attempts in college. Hawkins was needed after Jackson Cleaver missed a field goal and extra point, dropping him to 3 of 6 on FGs this season. Cleaver had started the year 2 of 2 vs. UM as he replaced Seth Harrison, a preseason third-team All-American who’s just 6 of 12 this year. Nick Kokich is averaging 40.6 yards on 42 punts. Efton Chism is averaging 20.3 yards per kick return and 4.4 yards per punt return, both team highs.

Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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