Northern Arizona wants to prove it belongs in the upper echelon of the Big Sky Conference. Montana State wants to start its October slate with a bang.
On Saturday, No. 11 MSU plays at the Walkup Skydome for the first time since 2010. The Bobcats are fresh off a 45-28 win over No. 20 Cal Poly in front of a homecoming crowd. The win served as a needed bounce back for the Bobcats after a 55-50 loss to No. 11 Eastern Washington the week previous. NAU lost 77-13 to FBS No. 20 Arizona the week before opening Big Sky Conference play in Missoula. The Lumberjacks lost, 23-14, on homecoming at Montana to fall to 2-2 following a 2-0 start.
“We are still very confident, we still have the swagger we had when we were 2-0,” Alford said. “We can’t really lose anymore. We are just taking it one week at a time and we are very confident in what we can do. We know how good of a team we can be. We don’t feel like we’ve played as well as we can thus far.”
Entering the season, NAU head coach Jerome Souers said he knew the Lumberjacks could determine their own Big Sky fate and the primary tests would come early. Northern Arizona begins league play with the Griz then the Cats, while also playing at Eastern Washington on November 7. NAU is 18-7 in league play since the Big Sky expanded to 13 teams in 2012. But the ‘Jacks have never played UM, MSU and EWU in the same season. One of the three have won or shared every Big Sky title since 1993.
“These are the kind of games we want to play,” Alford said in an interview in July. “We didn’t play Montana State last year and we have never played them in Flagstaff since I’ve been here. We didn’t play Eastern my sophomore year (2012) and we felt we could have won the title that year if we did. We’ve proven we can beat Montana (41-31 in Missoula in 2012, 34-16 in Flagstaff in 2013). We know we have to beat these teams if we want to win the Big Sky.”
For Montana State, Saturday’s showdown completes a stretch that began with each of the last three opponents ranked in the Top 25, although Cal Poly and NAU have since dropped out. Montana State used a fast start and a strong finish to bury Cal Poly in Bozeman. The Bobcats hope to carry the momentum into a venue that no current MSU player has ever played in. Montana State is not taking Northern Arizona lightly.
“NAU has really good skill people, their receivers are outstanding, the running back is very tough. The quarterback is very talented, young, but very talented,” Montana State head coach Rob Ash said. “They have the ability to score quickly and put up big numbers. Our defense once again has to be sound. I think we learned a good lesson as a defensive group (against Cal Poly) that it’s important to be in the right place and have you eyes on the right guy. Even though the scheme is totally different, hopefully that idea will rub off and we’ll be in good shape.”
For most of Souers’ 18 seasons, the Lumberjacks have operated a West Coast offense predicated on single-back sets and play-action passes. In first-year offensive coordinator Tim Plough’s new scheme, NAU has put an emphasis on throwing the ball down the field. True freshman quarterback Case Cookus is second in the league with a passer efficiency rating of 194.1. He has thrown eight touchdowns, including seven of at least 34 yards to sophomore Emmanuel Butler.
The Lumberjacks will face off against a MSU pass defense that essentially had the week off last weekend against Cal Poly’s triple option offense. Against EWU, MSU allowed Jordan West to complete 21-of-24 passes for 410 yards and six touchdowns, including 10 completions of at least 29 yards as junior Cooper Kupp caught 12 passes for 201 yards. Sophomore Nic Splendorio (three catches, 120 yards, 78-yard TD), junior Kendrick Bourne (four catches, 82 yards, 35-yard TD) and Kupp consistently dominated man-to-man coverage on the outside.
“As an offense, we are going to take advantage of what the defense gives us so Montana State, they like to play a lot of one-on-one press with their guys so if that’s what they are going to do, we are going to throw the ball down the field,” said Cookus, who threw for 187 yards including touchdowns of 57 and 34 yards to Butler last weekend in Missoula. “If they decide to do something else, change up their defense and play a lot of zone, we will run the ball. We will make adjustments.”
Cookus makes a living with finding the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Butler. The sophomore wide receiver has good speed, excellent hands, the ability to attack the ball at its highest point and run after the catch. Butler has touchdown catches of (in order) 57, 47, 36, 46, 62, 57 and 34 yards this season. He is averaging 28.1 yards per catch and is second in the league to Kupp in touchdown catches.
“We have to be great on the outside as far as going up and attacking the football in the air,” MSU first-year defensive coordinator Kane Ioane said. “We have to attack the football in the air and therefore, he can’t go up over the top of us, he’s got to go up and through us because we are going up first to go get that football.”
Senior Casey Jahn has is averaging 97 rushing yards per outing and 5.4 yards per carry to help compliment the passing attack.
Last week, Montana jumped out to a 16-0 first-half lead by holding the ‘Jacks to 19 first-half yards. An injury to All-Big Sky senior guard Eric Rodriguez means the offensive line has been reshuffled. Redshirt freshman Cole Habib has joined a unit that was supposed to feature three seniors. Montana notched five first-half sacks and eight overall in the win.
Northern Arizona’s defense has excelled as rushing the passer — NAU is third in the Big Sky with 11 sacks — but the typically ball-hawking unit has forced just two turnovers. Alford, senior safety Eddie Horn, senior linebacker Josh Bambrick and senior defensive end Zach McDonnell anchor the unit.
“They’re physical and tough always on defense,” Ash said. “For years they’ve always had a little different idea of defense from teams in the league because they’re committed to outnumbering you in the box and playing man to man. They threw the gauntlet down against the Griz and played hard with their man-to-man defense and made some stops. I was very impressed, especially on the road in that environment.”
Saturday, the Lumberjacks will be faced with slowing down a Bobcat offense averaging 47.5 points and 581 yards per game this season. Junior quarterback Dakota Prukop is throwing for 316 yards per game and rushing for 100 yards per outing.
“Dakota Prukop is a tremendous player,” said Souers, who will tie Chris Ault (Nevada 1979-1991) for the most Big Sky victories at 68 with his next league win. “He’s the guy in our conference who you have to figure out. The way he is performing, you have to defend his legs, you have to defend his arm and you have to defend the great decisions that he makes with what he does with the ball. Right now, he’s the premier and elite of our conference.”
Northern Arizona will have to find a way to slow Prukop down if they themselves want to be considered among the premier in the Big Sky.
Montana State photos by Brooks Nuanez. NAU photos courtesy of Northern Arizona athletics. All Rights Reserved.