Coming off three straight blowout wins, Montana head coach Bob Stitt felt that if his team could refrain from turning the ball over, it had a good chance of extending that run of success.
And if not?
Stitt got his answer to that Saturday in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Montana turned the ball over twice and failed to convert a pair of fourth down conversions in its own territory as Northern Arizona upended the 10th-ranked team in the nation, 45-34, for the Lumberjacks’ third win in their last four tries against the Grizzlies. NAU posted wins in 2012 and 2013, did not play in 2014. UM beat NAU in Missoula last season.
Though big plays in the first quarter got the ’Jacks rolling, it was a Montana’s third-quarter miscues that all but sealed the deal for Northern Arizona. A James Homan fumble and a failed fourth-down conversion led to NAU touchdowns as the Lumberjacks outscored Montana 17-0 in the third frame to extend their 28-20 halftime advantage into a commanding 45-20 lead.
“The field position was huge,” Northern Arizona head coach Jerome Souers said in a postgame interview with Fox Sports Arizona. “I thought our guys, the special teams did a great job of keeping them pinned and giving them long fields. (Defensive coordinator and former Griz linebacker) Andy Thompson called a helluva game and so did (offensive coordinator) Tim Plough. I’m really proud of my guys.”
The 17-point quarter pulled the plug on the momentum the Grizzlies built with an 11-yard touchdown from senior Brady Gustafson to sophomore Keenan Curran with 5 seconds remaining in the first half — and it continued a storyline that permeated the night.
Northern Arizona, temporarily besieged this season by an injury to its preseason All-American sophomore quarterback Case Cookus, took advantage of Montana’s aggressive man-to-man defense with long passes to receivers William Morehand and Emmanuel Butler in the first quarter and another to Butler in the third that set up Corbin Jountii’s 13-yard touchdown jaunt, a score that put the ’Jacks ahead 25 with 5 minutes remaining in the third.
That possession, created by Montana’s turnover on downs, was subsequent to the Lumberjacks’ first touchdown in the pivotal quarter, also set up by an opportune turnover.
NAU linebacker Jake Thomas came from behind Homan, poking the ball out in the direction of NAU linebacker Xavier Stephens. A personal foul moved the ball to the Montana 30 and Northern Arizona needed nine plays to move the ball across the goal line on Jounttis’ 1-yard score.
The drive was all but dead when Northern Arizona lined up to go for a fourth-and-1 from the 21. NAU senior quarterback Blake Kemp, attempting to pick up the first down on a quarterback sneak, was driven into the backfield by Yamen Sanders, but the play was called dead and Montana defensive end Tucker Schye was called offsides.
It was one of a long line of costly Montana mistakes.
The first came on Northern Arizona’s first play from scrimmage. As the tattered Lumberjacks offensive line held up against Montana’s vaunted pass rush, Kemp spent a good majority of the first half tossing passes deep down field against the Grizzlies’ man-to-man coverage scheme. The first attempt went for a 74-yard score to Morehand.
Kemp then completed passes of 36 yards to Morehand and 29 yards to Butler on the Lumberjacks’ second possession to set up a 10-yard touchdown from Kemp to Delshawn McClellon to go ahead 14-3. Kemp completed four of his first five passes for 149 yards and the two scores.
“They were daring us to do it so we were going to do it,” Souers told Fox Sports Arizona. “That’s what our game plan was coming out. They are a stout defense. They are really good. We had to do the only thing we could which was throw our way out of it. Emmanuel Butler, Blake Kemp did a great job today.”
Montana cut the lead to three on Gustafson’s 47-yard connection to redshirt freshman wide receiver Justin Calhoun on the first play of the second quarter, but Kemp sandwiched a 19-yard touchdown pass to senior running back Kendyl Taylor and a 3-yard toss to Thomas around Tim Semenza’s 26-yard field goal.
Then came Montana’s calamitous third quarter.
Trailing 38-20, Gustafson, who operated in the face of a relentless pass rush throughout the game because of Thompson’s blitzing defense, overthrew sophomore Caleb Lyons on third down and then sailed a pass to redshirt freshman Colin Bingham on fourth, handing the ’Jacks prime field position.
Montana’s next drive must have felt like deja vu — only this time the distance between it and Northern Arizona was greater.
Staring down the barrel of a 25-point deficit, Stitt again kept his offense on the field. Curran broke loose of his defender, but Gustafson again overthrew the receiver, essentially putting an end to the Grizzlies’ comeback hopes.
Gustafson, who threw for 394 yards and tossed four touchdowns for the fourth consecutive week, threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns, but Montana couldn’t recover either of their on side kick attempts.
Now 5-2 and 2-2 in the Big Sky standings, Montana heads to No. 3 Eastern Washington on Saturday. NAU’s win moves them to 4-4 overall, 3-2 in Big Sky play. The third straight win has helped the hosts overcome a 1-4 start.
“I couldn’t be prouder of my coaches and my players as I am today,” Souers said. “We had a rough start to the season. Coming back, they played inspired today. I’m so proud of them.”