BOZEMAN — Chris Murray stepped up into the pocket for what seems like the firs time in his young career, resisting the urge to scramble and instead firing a first down strike on a third and long to move the chains as Montana State tried to rally once again.
The true freshman from Lawndale, California found classmate Kevin Kassis for a 20-yard gain as the clock ticked to one minute, 10 seconds. Murray stepped into the pocket and completed another strike on the following play, this one to sophomore John D’Agostino for a nine-yard gain to midfield as the clock wound under a minute. For a brief moment, it looked like Montana State’s 17-year-old electric run-first quarterback was growing into a field general.
But as has been the case during an excruciating 2-4 start, Montana State could not come up in the clutch once again. Murray fired to Kassis for a leaping grab that would’ve been a 19-yard gain deep into Northern Arizona territory but Kassis’ leaping catch was negated after a replay because his left hand landed out of bounds before his right foot touched the Bobcat Stadium turf.
D’Agostino drew a pass interference penalty on NAU birthday boy Cole Sterns two plays later before Siupeli Anua continued terrorizing Montana State’s depleted offensive line. The menacing Northern Arizona defensive lineman beat MSU junior right tackle Caleb Gillis — playing because of a shuffle caused by left tackle Dylan Mahoney’s injured left foot — around the edge, chased Murray down from behind and buried him into the turf with authority, forcing his second fumble of the night. NAU’s Xavier Stephens returned the ball 39 yards into MSU territory with 12 seconds left.
Quarterback Blake Kemp took a knee and Northern Arizona escaped with its first Division I win with a 20-14 victory in front of 17,637 here on Saturday evening.
“There’s no words that can describe how this feels,” said Anua, a senior who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. “So much hard work goes into this. It feels so good for that play to happen to me, I’m so thankful.
“These tears, they are tears of joy,” he continued after notching three sacks, his eyes still moist. “Everyone is asking me why I’m crying. I’m just so happy. Senior year, finally got a D-I win. The hardest part last year was seeing some upsets that I thought I could help out with. It feels so good to be able to help.”
Northern Arizona, the Big Sky Conference preseason favorite pick by both the league’s coaches and affiliated media, stumbled to a 1-4 start that included four straight Division I losses. From miscues in the red-zone to a slew of penalties to key injuries, including the loss of star sophomore quarterback Case Cookus, Northern Arizona has struggled to break through. But Saturday, in front of a hostile crowd, the Lumberjacks rode freshman running back Joe Logan to 147 rushing yards and two touchdowns and NAU’s defense held tough after the momentum swung in MSU’s favor to hold on for a critical victory as the team tries to right the ship.
After the game, jubilation oozed from the NAU locker room. The team sang happy birthday to Sterns before an endless stream of hugs poured out into the hallway.
“This is a long time coming,” NAU 19th-year head coach Jerome Souers said. “We’ve had some frustrations, some adversity. I couldn’t be prouder of the way our guys played tonight, particularly the way our guys finished. This is a hard place to play here.”
Montana State fell for the fourth time in first-year head coach Jeff Choate’s first season, the four losses coming by a total of 14 points. MSU had a chance to win with under two minutes to play in losses to Idaho, North Dakota and Sacramento State, each defeat by three points or less.
“It’s a fickle game, man,” Choate said. “Very, very small margin of error. I feel like these guys have done everything we’ve asked them to do. I hurt for them. They deserve a paycheck so to speak. Extremely frustrating but that’s part of the process sometimes. I know this: you can see the incremental progress we are making week to week. We are playing well on defense and playing well on special teams. It’s just the nature of the game.
“I know this: it’s going to turn. It’s the nature of this game if we stay the course. If we build something the right way with the same foundation and discipline, we will have a really, really good football team here. It’s just hard when you don’t get that paycheck and I feel back for these guys.”
While Murray looked like a more complete quarterback than the pure runner who piled up 187 yards last weekend in Sacramento, the Bobcats still came up short in a season where the losses are beginning to wear on the team’s veterans. After four playoff appearances and three Big Sky titles in this decade’s first five years, MSU has lost 10 of its last 17 dating back to last season.
“This is a feeling we have had too much this year, honestly,” said MSU senior captain running back Chad Newell after rushing for 68 yards and his 29th total touchdown in his career, tying Don Hass for second on MSU’s all-time list. “We feel let down but it’s something we have to bounce back from. The season is still young. It’s time to grow and take advantage of more opportunities.
“At the end of the day though, the newspaper title reads ‘Bobcats beat Bobcats’ again. That’s a thing we have to eliminate.”
The first quarter ended in a scoreless tie, indicative of the slugfest that would ensue between two formerly prolific offensive teams. Last season, NAU defeated Montana State 49-41; the Bobcats ended up leading the Big Sky in scoring offense (42 points per game) while the Lumberjacks scored at least 50 points in half their conference games. This time around however, with Cookus and departed MSU quarterback Dakota Prukop gone — he transferred to Oregon for his senior year — offense was hard to come by, particularly in the first half.
NAU true freshman kicker Griffin Roehler, who would miss field goals of 42 and 46 yards after halftime to keep MSU in it, notched the game’s first score with a 37-yard field goal four minutes into the second quarter. Meanwhile, Montana State’s offense sputtered for the first 30 minutes as junior quarterback Tyler Bruggman completed just 3-of-10 passes for 22 yards.
MSU gave Murray a series in the first half and he completed a 29-yard strike to Justin Paige. But Choate and offensive coordinator decided to go with Bruggman for the duration of the first half otherwise; MSU managed just five first downs.
Meanwhile, MSU’s defense kept the NAU offense bottled up. But with 4:43 left in the first half, Logan, a true freshman from Buckeye, Arizona, ripped off a 65-yard run to give NAU a 10-0 lead that held until halftime.
On the opening kickoff of the second half, Kassis fumbled and Taylor Powell recovered. Montana State’s defense tightened, allowing just 10 yards on eight plays as Roehler hit his second field goal of the night from 31 yards out to give NAU a 13-0 lead.
Three plays later, Murray rolled out to his right on a play-action bootleg play. His lofting throw intended for MSU redshirt freshman Cameron Sutton was intercepted by Khalil Dorsey. NAU took over on its own 15 and proceeded to drive 85 yards in 12 plays, highlighted by junior All-American Emmanuel Butler’s 20-yard reception and capped by Logan’s five-yard scoring spurt, his second touchdown of the night.
At that point, NAU had 293 yards, Kemp had completed seven of his nine second-half pass attempts and the visitors possessed a 20-0 lead. MSU had 93 yards and five first downs. But the MSU staff elected to go with Murray for the rest of the game and the Bobcats found a bit of momentum.
On the first play from scrimmage after Logan’s second touchdown, MSU ran a jet sweep handoff to junior wide receiver Jayshawn Gates for a 32-yard gain. Newell ripped off 19 yards on the next play, then scored a nine-yard touchdown, the 25th rushing touchdown of his career for MSU’s first score. Sparked by Mac Bignell’s 10th tackle for loss this season, MSU earned a stop on NAU’s next possession, taking over on its own 28. Montana State held NAU to 112 yards the rest of the way after Logan’s second touchdown.
“You just have to love the game and know you are never out of it,” said MSU senior cornerback John Walker, who notched five tackles and held the explosive Butler to less than 10 yards per catch on seven receptions. “Last week, we was up (38-21 over Sac State). We could’ve easily had the game but they came back and won (41-38). The game is never over until the clock is up. You can always come back. I feel like as a team, no one had doubt that was wasn’t going to win this game. That’s why myself and the other guys, this is a tough one to swallow.”
Six plays after the stop — a drive sparked by Gunnar Brekke’s 28-yard run and solidified by Murray’s 13-yard first-down strike to Paige — Murray read a blitz on a pass play, cut inside a Newell block and used his prodigious speed to score a 19-yard touchdown, his seventh of his rookie season, to cut NAU’s lead to 20-14.
“We were down 20-0 and most teams would’ve gotten run out of here,” Choate said. “What we did was we bowed our neck and we made plays. We put together two great drives with a 17-year-old quarterback and we were able to put ourselves in great position to win the game at the end for the fourth time against a team that was picked to win the conference walking into this place.
“The result in the end isn’t what you want but I’m extremely proud of the way these guys performed in the second half to give us an opportunity.”
The final 13:25 was a defensive struggle as NAU managed just three first downs as it tried to bleed the clock. MSU gained 143 of its 281 total yards on its two scoring drives but couldn’t muster much after. MSU had three possessions following its final score but couldn’t manufacture any more points. NAU’s last possession, beginning at 6:28 in the fourth and ending with 1:46 in the action, included six runs by Corbin Jountti for 31 yards.
NAU’s win is its first outside a 73-3 runaway against Division II New Mexico Highlands and its first Big Sky victory. The loss drops Montana State to 0-3 in Big Sky play, tied with UC Davis as the only two teams in the 13-team league without a conference win.
“The way I see it, it’s a choice we have to make of how we are going to come out tomorrow,” Newell said. “We have an opportunity to practice tomorrow and us seniors, we only have five guaranteed opportunities to do that on a Sunday. We have an opportunity to come back to work and get ready for Weber. We have an opportunity to get back on track tomorrow morning. We know the situation we are in and how dire it is.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.