FLAGSTAFF, Arizona — Jerome Souers expressed deep concern about his team’s ability to slow down Montana State gunslinger Dakota Prukop.
Prukop entered Saturday’s game here against Northern Arizona averaging 316 yards passing and 100 yards rushing per game. He was fresh off a 399-yard, four-touchdown passing performance in a 45-28 MSU win over Cal Poly. Souers, NAU’s head coach, said slowing him down would be a key to the Lumberjacks’ win.
Although Prukop again finished with 399 yards and four passing touchdowns, Northern Arizona did as good a job at disrupting Prukop’s flow and keeping him flustered as any Big Sky Conference team in his two seasons as a starter. Of Prukop’s passing yards, 288 of them came in the game’s final 18 minutes as MSU tried to scramble back from deficits of 42-14 and 49-20. In the run game, NAU kept Prukop completely contained, limiting him to 2.6 yards per carry as he amassed 54 yards on 21 rushes.
“We were going to do what we always do, weren’t going to change anything drastically but we put some calls in we hadn’t been running,” NAU senior cornerback Marcus Alford said. “We ran a little more zone so there could be more eyes on the quarterback. He ran around a lot but we did a good job of swarming.”
Montana State ran zone read option plays on multiple occasions. Northern Arizona slow-played the play-side defensive end in an effort to force Prukop to make a keeper read. Each time he kept it, the Lumberjacks smothered him. When Prukop did hand it off, MSU running back Chad Newell gained yards, averaging 6.5 yards per carry on 13 carries in totaling 84 yards, half of which came on two runs to set up MSU’s second touchdown.
“There was a lot of Dakota run in this game plan for us and they did a good job of rallying to that,” MSU head coach Rob Ash said. “We had some openings that they were able to snuff out with good defensive plays on their part and they ran to the ball.”
Prukop threw a 64-yard touchdown to sophomore Justin Paige late in the third quarter, then threw touchdowns of 12 yards to senior Mitch Griebel, 85 yards to junior Gunnar Brekke on a broken play and 40 yards to Paige to cap the scoring. Both Brekke (101) and Paige (104) finished with more than 100 yards. Griebel extended his streak of games with multiple receptions to 17 straight and caught his first college touchdown. Prukop tied his career high for passing yards set one week earlier.
“I thought he still played a magnificent game,” Ash said. “Holy cow, scrambling around, making plays, finding receivers, throwing touchdowns, battling back. But yes, I thought he would run more.”
“I thought (NAU defensive coordinator) Andy Thompson did a good job of mixing it up to slow down Prukop and with the number of things they can do with their offense, it’s a scary proposition to try to contain. But we felt like our offense had to put pressure on their offense. That was really the key to the matchup and it played out that way,” Souers said.
Containing Prukop was certainly a key to NAU building a big lead. But the Lumberjacks’ ability to go blow for blow with the Big Sky’s leading scoring offense proved to be equally important.
NAU began the game by throwing the ball down the field to sophomore stud Emmanuel Butler, a future All-America who came into the game averaging 28.6 yards per catch. True freshman quarterback Case Cookus hit Butler for gains of 31 and 33 yards down the sidelines in the game’s first four plays aided by great catches from Butler on each.
On NAU’s second possession, Cookus went to the other side finding Dejzon Walker down the near sideline for a 32-yard touchdown. By the second quarter, Montana State was playing two high safeties and rolling each over to help in coverage on the outside, leaving the middle wide open and giving the NAU offense and advantage in the run game.
“We feel like the way he (Butler) is playing right now, he’s a tough matchup for anyone one-on-one,” Souers said. “They were moving the safety over the top of Emmanuel and Case was hitting the tight ends and the slots. When they covered the two outside guys, we hadn’t even worked on it but we hit (Alex) Holmes down the middle. Case, at times he’s really exceptional and he shows great moxie for the game and he played really well today.”
Cookus completed 16-of-20 passes for 200 yards and three touchdowns in the first half alone. He finished 18-of-24 for 244 yards and four TDs. Late in the second quarter and all throughout the third quarter, Montana State did its best to limit all levels of the passing game. NAU gained an advantage in out-numbering the box and Casey Jahn was able to run wild.
Jahn ripped off a 45-yard run in the second quarter to help NAU take a 28-14 lead into the locker room. After halftime, he ripped off a 43-yard run and capped that drive with a six-yard touchdown to put NAU up three scores. With All-Big Sky guard Eric Rodriguez back in the starting lineup after missing two weeks with injuries, the Lumberjacks controlled the line of scrimmage, helping NAU rush for 252 yards. Jahn rushed for a career-high 175 yards and his first two touchdowns of his senior season while Corbin Jountti added 68 yards on eight rushes. The duo averaged 7.6 yards per carry.
“We thought let’s not give them a big chunk one-on-one down the sideline in the passing game which they love to do so we played classic two-high (safeties) and they gashed us for some big runs,” Ash said. “It was a major point of concern at halftime. As we went through the second half, trying to get him stop.
“It’s a rule of football: if you have to double a wide receiver, then the running game is much easier to block and that’s the situation they put us in. Their game plan was really good because they came out and established the throws the Butler and (Walker) and forced us to back off with our safeties and the running back was tough after that.”
Regardless of the schematic adjustments, the Bobcat defense continued to look like one of the Big Sky’s most vulnerable units. Montana State surrendered seven plays of 32 or more yards on Saturday, bringing the total over the last three weeks to 26 plays of more than 29 yards, including 15 via the pass.
Montana State is giving up 36.5 points and 464 yards per game, including 44 points and 526.3 yards per game against Division I opponents. Against Eastern Washington, Cal Poly and NAU, MSU is allowing 287.3 rushing yards and 6.1 yards per carry. Montana State is also dead last in the Big Sky with a passer efficiency defense rating of 219.1.
“We have to polish up the drawing board,” MSU senior captain Taylor Sheridan said. “Everything is there. There’s so many things that could have changed it. Just personally, we did a safe punt and I don’t think they were ready for it, I blew right through and the ball was an inch from my pad. I put that up, we block it. That screen, read it perfectly, the ball tipped right off my fingers. That’s one inch from an interception, give it to the offense, a whole different game. Everything is there but the little things are missing. If we can polish it up, we can be pretty damn good.”
During the first quarter, Cookus went right at Montana State senior Bryson Keeton, undoubtedly Montana State’s best cornerback in a green and shaky group. Later in the second quarter, NAU had the ball at the MSU 2-yard line. Cookus threw to Butler, who drew a pass interference flag on Keeton. On the next play, Cookus and Butler had a miscommunication that resulted in an incompletion. Cookus went at Keeton for a third straight time down by the goal line, Butler out-jumped Keeton and secured his eighth touchdown catch this season.
At the other cornerback spot, Montana State gave true freshman Tre’Von Strong his first career start. He gave up the 32-yard touchdown to Walker and a 43-yarder to Holmes later on.
“He’s (Strong) a little bigger body type who could compete against their physical size at receiver, that was the biggest thing,” Ash said. “And we thought in practice he was playing the ball the best at the point where the ball came out of the sky and the receiver was going up for it. He finally did in the second half make a pass breakup there. It’s tough to put a freshman in that spot. I think he’s going to be really good. I’m not finished with him by any means and that was a tough way to start.
“We will just have to stay with him but we are not settled at that position yet either. We just have to see going forward who will be the one that will compete and perform.”
Strong has been in a battle since the beginning of August with senior Trace Timmer and sophomore Bryce Alley for the spot opposite Keeton.
Montana State has scored at least 41 points in all four games this season. Yet the Bobcats find themselves at 2-2 entering October. Sheridan said post-game that it was clear that the defense was not pulling its weight. Ash wasn’t so quick to jump to conclusions.
“Everybody out on this football team probably had a play or two they could’ve done better on. Every single guy and that’s what we truly believe no matter who executed how much here, where or then,” Ash said. “Maybe the defense allowed X,Y,Z points but maybe there’s one or two plays that might of made a stop and might’ve helped us win and we feel totally different. There will never be any division on this team.
“It’s over now so what we have to do is go Tuesday and start back at it. We can’t worry about big picture right now. I told them in the locker room that the most important next day for our program is Tuesday when we go back out and practice. We have to have a great day and start climbing our way back up. We can’t think big picture.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.