Big Sky Conference

The Lumberjacks have a tradition of taking the ball away

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Marcus Alford grew up in a culture at Northern Arizona where ball hawking is the main priority.

Since Jerome Souers took over as NAU’s head coach in 1998, four different Lumberjacks have led the Big Sky Conference in interceptions six different times. Since Andy Thompson took over as NAU’s defensive coordinator in 2009, the pass defense in a pass-heavy league has stayed steady.

MAU safety Eddie Horn makes a tackle on Montana running back Joey Counts

MAU safety Eddie Horn makes a tackle on Montana running back Joey Counts

NAU has led the Big Sky Conference in pass defense and passer efficiency defense for the past three seasons. In 2011, NAU snared 11 interceptions as the Lumberjacks finished 8-3, just outside the FCS playoff picture. In 2013, the Lumberjacks hauled in 14 interceptions and scored eight defensive touchdowns as safety Lucky Dozier and cornerback Anders Battle earned first-team All-Big Sky honors. Alford was an all-conference cornerback on that squad as well, a team that went 9-2 but lost in the first round of the FCS playoffs to South Dakota State, 26-7.

Last season, Alford earned first-team All-Big Sky honors as the ‘Jacks again led the league in most major pass defense categories, allowing just 177 yards per game. Opponents converted a league-low 33.3 percent of their third downs against the Lumberjacks. Alford and safety Eddie Horn each snared three interceptions and Alford returned one for a touchdown.

“We get different prizes for different things, like if a guy has the most interceptions that week in practice, all the DBs have to buy him food,” Alford said during an interview at the Big Sky Kickoff in Park City, Utah in July. “Every time we get a takeaway, we take that back for a touchdown no matter what. We take a lot of pride in our defensive backs at Northern Arizona. It’s a tradition we have.”

The tradition and mentality has led to some huge wins the last few seasons. In 2013, the Lumberjacks broke up 10 passes, forced four fumbles, notched seven sacks and piled up 12 quarterback hurries in a 34-16 win over No. 7 Montana in Flagstaff. The ‘Jacks had pair of interceptions and four sacks in a 20-10 win at playoff-bound Southern Utah later that year to sew up a post-season spot of their own.

Last season, Northern Arizona held No. 2 Eastern Washington’s potent passing attack to 171 yards by breaking up eight passes in a 28-27 upset win in Flagstaff.

“We have sound technique and we play with a ton of confidence,” Alford said. “That’s THE key in the secondary. When we play against the better teams, we get even more fired up. The reason we were able to beat Eastern last year was we were so fired up. We see in the media all the time the top guys they have and we feed off of that.”

So far, the turnovers have been hard to come by in 2015 for the Lumberjacks. Alford’s two interceptions are the only takeaways this season for NAU. On Saturday, Northern Arizona welcomes Montana State to the Walkup Skydome for family weekend and a key Big Sky showdown. In 244 offensive plays, Montana State has rolled up 1,741 yards of total offense, scored 140 points and turned the ball over exactly once: a desperation heave by Dakota Prukop at the end of a 55-50 loss at to Eastern Washington intercepted by EWU cornerback Nzuzi Webster.

“Our defense seeks that as a goal, to create as many takeaways as we possible can and we are way behind,” Souers said. “Our turnover margin isn’t where we want it to be. We haven’t created enough turnovers yet.

NAU Cornerbacks Delvin Batiste and Marcus Alford

NAU Cornerbacks Delvin Batiste and Marcus Alford

“Every game you play, that’s a huge factor in the outcome — who has possession? Are you taking care of the ball? Are you creating opportunities to create a possession of your own by forcing a turnover? As we look at that, we are not where we want to be defensively and we are not where we want to be as a football team.”

Since Battle’s graduation, Alford has been the catalyst for the backend and the defense as a whole. When he has the ball in his hands, the senior from Oxnard, California has been electric. He returned his lone interception in 2013 for a touchdown. He also had a 96-yard kickoff return for a game-winning score to beat Cal Poly that year. Last season, he returned one of his interceptions 67 yards for a TD against Portland State.

“Marcus’s talent is noticed on the field and off the field as well,” said Horn, a Granada, California native who transferred from Chabot JC before last season. “He’s not just a guy who just plays. He helps out the players around him as well. Just from being here, I noticed that from Day 1. I feed off his energy and his big plays.”

Along with Portland State senior Aaron Sibley, Alford has established a reputation as the top lockdown cornerback in the Big Sky. The Lumberjacks employ man-to-man tactics on the outside of their coverage and blitz frequently. Yet Prukop said he won’t shy away from going right at Alford on Saturday.

“He’s a good player but we have really good players on offense,” Prukop said on Tuesday. “I don’t think you avoid him. But I guess if you are going to keep your eye on someone, that’s a guy you keep you eye on. But I hope this team chooses to play us in man coverage.

“I have seen blitzing on film but I don’t know if that’s the way you attack our offense. We invite the blitz. I’m hoping to get some pressure this weekend.”

NAU’s pass defense statistics are somewhat tough to gage given the nature of the Lumberjacks’ schedule thus far. Northern Arizona opened its season with a 34-28 win over No. 24 Stephen F. Austin, traditionally one of the Southland Conference’s most pass-happy teams. Alford had an interception to help boost NAU into the Top 25 for a week.

The following week, NAU smothered Division II New Mexico Highlands, allowing 133 total yards and just 80 yards passing. Two weeks ago, FBS No. 20 Arizona trucked the ‘Jacks, piling up 792 yards of total offense, including 293 through the air in a 77-13 win. Last weekend, Alford had an interception and NAU kept Montana’s aerial attack in check, allowing 279 yards. The Griz are averaging 337 passing yards per game, including 353 against Cal Poly and 434 against North Dakota State.

NAU safety Darius Lewis

NAU safety Darius Lewis

Alford, Horn and senior Darius Lewis give NAU three seniors among five starting defensive backs. Sophomore Wes Sutton started the first three games opposite Alford before giving way to freshman Maurice Davison, a highly recruited product of Servite High in Anaheim who held offers from Cal Poly, Eastern Washington, Idaho, Villanova, New Hampshire, Sacramento State, Idaho and Montana State before signing with NAU. Last week against Montana, Davison notched eight tackles and broke up two passes.

“I think every Big Sky school wanted him pretty bad,” Alford said. “He’s real athletic. He’ll be one of the next top DBs from NAU in the future. We are very impressed with him. He played over 100 plays last week and he did pretty good. They went at him a few times and he responded well.”

Saturday marks NAU’s first home game against a Division I opponent. The season is only one month old but the ‘Jacks cannot afford a second straight conference loss to begin the slate if they want to return to playoff form.

“We know we have to win this game,” Horn said. “We know we have to play our best on defense. We can’t go down two games in this conference. We have to bring it home in front of our home crowd and go out and get the W. This is a must-win.”

Photos courtesy of Northern Arizona athletics. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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