First Look

FIRST LOOK: Lumberjacks come to Bozeman for Big Sky brawl


BOZEMAN, Montana — Montana State posted a five-touchdown victory and scored its most points of the Jeff Choate era in a 56-21 victory over Norfolk State on Saturday.

The Bobcats went with Tucker Rovig at quarterback for the first time this season. The third year sophomore from Boise benefited from a rushing attack that ripped through the NSU defense for 449 yards rushing despite sophomore Isaiah Ifanse and junior Troy Andersen, MSU’s top two ball carries, not playing. Rovig threw for 221 yards and four touchdowns.

Even with that offensive explosion, Choate couldn’t help but mention the big plays the Bobcats gave up in the passing game to Norfolk quarterback Juwan Carter and his receiving corps. The visitors jumped out to a 7-0 lead on a touchdown drive highlighted by Da’Kendall James’ 57-yard reception.

Carter had a long completion of 15 yards on a 12-play, 70-yard march that ate up 8:23 of clock and featured seven completions in 10 attempts by Carter, including three fourth down conversions and an 8-yard touchdown strike to Kevin Johnson. Carter also hit James for a 38-yard gain in the second half and had three other completions of at least 18 yards. He threw for 243 yards and two touchdowns.

“We have some things we HAVE to clean up in the back end,” Choate said following his team’s third straight win. “We have Case Cookus coming to town next week and if we have pass coverage like we did today, it’s going to be a long day for the Bobcats. We will have our guys’ attention on that for sure.”

Montana State’s secondary has been one of the only gray areas for a team that has been otherwise dominant on the offensive and defensive fronts and in the run game on both sides of the ball.

Montana State cornerback Tyrel Thomas (2) in 2017/by Brooks Nuanez

The Bobcats have been without senior Greg “Munchie” Filer III, a preseason All-Big Sky Conference selection who earned all-league honors after snaring three interceptions last season. Montana State has also been without sophomore Ty Okada, a versatile defensive back who can play safety, nickel back and cornerback. And junior Tyrel Thomas has not been 100 percent in quite some time, hindering his man coverage abilities.

Up next, that secondary — a unit that also features senior cornerback Damien Washington and a pair of NFL hopefuls in senior safeties Brayden Konkol and Jahque Alleyne — will take on Cookus, one of the league’s most veteran and most lethal quarterbacks.

The sixth-year senior was the FCS Jerry Rice Award winner in 2015 as the nation’s top freshman. That season, he threw for 37 touchdowns to lead NAU to the brink of the playoffs. He threw four touchdowns in Northern Arizona’s wild 49-41 victory over MSU that season in Flagstaff.

The 6-foot-5 signal caller has thrown for 9,345 yards and 86 touchdowns in his career. He played just four games in 2016 and two games last season. In 2017, Cookus threw for 314 yards and a touchdown in NAU’s 37-36 win over Montana State in Flagstaff. That season, Cookus’ only other fully healthy season, he threw for 3,413 yards and 22 touchdowns to earn first-team All-Big Sky honors.

“They are a heavy tempo team so you have to get them off schedule,” Choate said. “If you are giving him five yards when they flip the ball out on the perimeter and five yards when they are running inside zone, you are going to have a long day. They are going to grind you out, they are going to run 90-plus plays.”

Montana State lost the last matchup between the two teams because of a missed two-point conversion near the end of the game.

Northern Arizona quarterback Case Cookus (15) in 2018/by NAU Athletics

“I don’t know if you remember what happened but Tyrel Thomas did not travel and Jalen Cole got ejected (for targeting),” Choate said. “From that point on, it was launch and he either got a PI or they got a 25-yard gain or more. I swear that’s a part of their deal: keep throwing deep shots because he’s so good at it.”

Montana State will counter with the best pass rush in the league highlighted by the current most prolific pass rusher in the country. The Cats are currently second among Big Sky teams with 12 sacks, although Portland State leads the group with 13 sacks and has played a Division II foe from Canada and an NAIA team.

MSU senior Bryce Sterk has led the charge, rolling up an FCS-best 8.5 sacks. That total equals the total that Sterk led the Big Sky with last season. He has five more sacks and five more tackles for loss than anyone in the league.

The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Adonis has benefited greatly from Derek Marks’ move from end to tackle for his senior year, the addition of 6-foot-6, 297-pound nose tackle Jason Scrempos as a graduate transfer from Washington, the addition of 6-foot-2, 255-pound Buck end as a standard transfer from Washington and the elevated play of 6-foot-4, 290-pound junior Chase Benson. That front is helping MSU give up 137.5 rushing yards per game.

“Bryce is playing at a really high level today,” Choate said. “I can’t say enough about the job that guy is doing right now. And really our entire defensive front. When those guys step up, they are suffocating against the run. If I’m a quarterback, I’m probably a little nervous because they are relentless and when they get to you, they arrive in a bad mood.”

Choate preached all day on Monday about how the 3-1 mark the Bobcats posted in the non-conference is now irrelevant. “We are 0-0,” came out of his mouth three times.

Montana State defensive end Bryce Sterk (37) vs Western Illinois in 2019/ by MSU Athletics

Following the Norfolk State win, Choate acknowledged he felt the first season of the month prepared his team.

“I think it was a very good, competitive schedule for us,” Choate said. “Playing a Power 5 school at their place to open the year. Play the No. 12 team in the country but we have them at home. Tough road test against a Missouri Valley team. And then another tough home contest against an FCS opponent. There was no Division II teams on that schedule. We played up and we played level.

Northern Arizona posted a 37-23 win over Missouri State in the season opener for both teams. The Lumberjacks scored 41 points in a 24-point loss at FBS Arizona. NAU posted a 55-21 win over Western New Mexico before falling 40-27 at No. 15 Illinois State last week.


Location: Flagstaff, Arizona

Nickname: Lumberjacks

Founded: 1899 as the Northern Arizoan Normal School. The public research university offers 158 bachelors and graduate degrees

Enrollment: 31,073 students, including 27,078 undergraduates and an endowment of $186.2.

Walkup Skydome at Northern Arizona/by Brooks Nuanez

Stadium: The J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome opened in 1977 when NAU hosted Montana in front of 12,860 fans on September 17 of that year. For its first six years, the Walkup Skydome was the world’s largest clear-span timber dome, until the completion of the Tacoma Dome in Tacoma, Washington, in 1983. The architect was Wendell Rossman of Phoenix, also responsible for many other buildings on the surrounding NAU campus. The wood used in construction of Walkup Skydome was southern yellow pine. At its launching in 1977, it was the third indoor football stadium in the Big Sky Conference: Holt Arena at Idaho State in Pocatello opened in 1970 (as the “Minidome”) and the Kibbie Dome at Idaho in Moscow was enclosed in 1975, after four years as an outdoor venue.

The seating capacity is 11,230, with 10,000 permanent seats and 1,230 seats in portable bleachers. NAU averaged 7,053 fans during five home games last season and 6,357 in two games this season.

The Coach: Chris Ball, first season at NAU. The well-traveled and well-respected defensive mind took over for a Big Sky institution when he replaced Jerome Souers. In 22 years as the head coach at NAU, Souers, won (123 games) and lost (114) more contests than any coach in conference history.

Ball is in his 33rd year of college coaching but his first as a head coach. 

“I think he’s an excellent football coach and I think he was an excellent choice to lead the program there at Northern Arizona,” Choate said. “I consider him a friend. We go back a ways.”

When Choate was at Washington State earlier this decade and Ball was the defensive coordinator at Arizona State, Choate and his family rented Ball’s house in Pullman, Washington. Choate’s wife, Janet, even staged the house for the Balls when they put the property up for sale.

When Choate was a finalist for the Montana State job, so was Ball.

“We actually compared notes throughout that process,” Choate said. “It is a very open, honest relationship and I have a lot of respect for him.”

Ball’s career began as the defensive backs coach at Northeast Missouri State in 1986. He serves as a graduate assistant at Akron in 1987 and 1988. He served on Mike Price’s staff at Washington State the following two years and then again Price’s last three seasons in 2000 through 2002.

Ball was the defensive backs coach at Coffeyville Community College from 1991 until 1994 and held the same position for the next to years at Western Oregon State. He became the defensive coordinator at Missouri Western in 1997 and the DC at Idaho State in 1999 before returning to Pullman. He was the defensive backs coach for Price at Alabama from 2003 until 2006. He DBs at Pitt in 2007 before his third stint at Washington State from 2008 until 2011 as the defensive coordinator on Paul Wulff’s staff.

He joined Todd Graham’s staff at Arizona State in 2012 and held that position for four seasons. For the last three seasons, Ball served as the defensive coordinator at Memphis on Mike Norvell’s staff.

“He’s been a defensive coordinator a long time and he’s run a variety of systems, whether it was at Washington State, Alabama, most recently at Memphis,” Choate said. “He was under Todd Graham at Arizona State and you see some of that influence. I don’t think Chris is quite as aggressive but he has vast knowledge of defensive schemes. He has run a variety of systems and he’s a very, very smart guy.”

THE OFFENSE – Players to watch

Case Cookus, quarterback, 6-5, 205 pounds, sixth-year senior — When he’s been able to avoid landing on his collar bone — the same injury ended his 2016 and 2018 seasons abruptly — he’s been the best pure quarterback in a league that has also featured several Walter Payton Award finalists.

Cookus’ ability to stand in the pocket and stretch the field with the best deep ball in the league has helped NAU morph from a team that ran the West Coast offense and leaned heavily on talented running backs like Zach Bauman transform into one of the most explosive big-play offenses in the league.

He has seen it all,” Cookus said. “The second he gets there, if you are going to press him into the boundary, they are going to convert the route and it’s going to be bombs over Baghdad for crying out loud.

“You can try to disguise your coverage and he’s going to find the hole. If you are playing zone, he is just going to pick you apart and take what he’s going to give you. If you press him, he’s going to kill you. The best ball the guy throws is a deep ball. He throws a beautiful deep ball.”

Cookus has thrown for nearly 10,000 yards and 86 touchdowns despite his injuries. But he has never recaptured the productivity of his freshman year. This is his last hurrah in Big Sky Conference play.

“We know we have a hugely talented player in Case Cookus,” Choate said. “But he’s not the team. We are going to have to defend the run, move some of these active d-linemen off the ball, we are going to have to be efficient in the pass game. There are a lot of things we are going to have to do well to get a win.”

Joe Logan, running back, 5-11, 200, senior — During his outstanding career at Estrella Foothills High, Logan rushed for more than 5,500 yards and 85 touchdowns, earning multiple Arizona player of the Year honors.

He showed elite productivity as a freshman in 2016 at NAU as well. He rushed for 147 yards and two toucdhwosn, including a 67-yard rip that proved to be the game winner as NAU won at Montana State. That season, Logan finished with 726 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns.

He scored six touchdowns as a sophomore but managed 650 yards, 76 less than his debut season. Last season, he played in just seven games, rushing for 437 yards and five touchdowns. This season, he has rushed for 79 yards on 37 carries and two touchdowns. He also has 12 catches for 225 yards and five touchdowns.

He has Choate’s full attention.

“His numbers in the run game don’t reflect how important he is in this offense,” Choate said. “They use him a ton in the pass game. He is a threat every time he touches the ball. He ran all over us four years ago. We really did not tackle him well. He had a big run at the end of the first half two years ago when we were down there that was hugely impactful in the game.”

“He’s a guy who has had some big days against us and we have to be aware of him.”

Brandon Porter, wide receiver, 5-10, 165, sophomore — The former high school quarterback has become one of the Big Sky’s most versatile and dangerous offensive weapons already. The slick, fast receiver also earned playing time at running bacn and even made two starts at quarterback last season.

He rushed for 432 yards on 63 carries, averaging more than six yards per carry. He also completed 10-of-30 passes for 154 yards and three touchdowns, although one of those scoring tosses came on a wide receiver reverse. He caught 28 passes for 325 yards and a score.

Porter threw a 55-yard touchdown in NAU’s win over Missouri State to begin the season. He also caught six passes for 140 yards and two scores. He has 21 catches for 327 yarsd and four touchdowns this season.

THE DEFENSE – Players to watch

Jalen Gross, defensive tackle, 6-1, 300, senior — The powerful, aggressive interior defensive linemen was NAU’s best defensive player last season. He earned third-team All-Big Sky honors by notching 40 tackles, leading the Lumberjacks with 10 tackles for loss and notching a pair of sacks. He also recofered two fumbles, incuding one he returned 30 yards for a touchdown to clinch NAU’s upset victory over Weber State. That TD scamper helped him earn Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week honors.

“I think 95 plays really hard, really like how he plays,” Choate said. “He’s a big, physical dude, a really good player.”

The Dallas, Texas native bounced back for a big year after taking a medical redshirt in 2017. In 2016, he competed in 10 games and made 10 tackles, including three for loss.

Aaron Andrews, defensive line, 6-2, 255, senior — Choate mentioned the former Chabot College transfer by number when breaking down an NAU defensive line that “brings a lot of bogus pressures, plays really hard and will be a handful.

Over the previous two seasons, Andrews has totaled 15.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. This year, he has half a sack among his 2.5 tackles for loss.

Khalil Dorsey, cornerback, 5-9, 170, senior — As a sophomore, the lightning fast Dorsey earned second-team All-Big Sky honors. Last season, he as a first-team All-Big Sky selection after rolling up 33 tackles, two tackles for loss, a forced fumble, and three interceptions.

In between, the blazer established himself as one of the top hurdlers in the Big Sky. Dorsey has scored points for the NAU powerhouse track team twice during Big Sky Indoor Championships and three times during the outdoor championships, all but one of those point-scoring occasions coming in the short hurdle races.

In his career, Dorsey, who as an honorable mention all-league cornerback as a freshman as well, has 101 solo tackles, 8.5 ackles for loss and eight interceptions in his career.

Photo attribution noted. 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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