Entering the year less experienced on the offensive line than in past seasons, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks have been blessed by something the group hasn’t seen much in recent years: health.
The same five starters -- left tackle Cole Habib, left guard Tyler Shank, center Blake Porter, right guard Malik Noshi and right tackle Jamison Pruitt -- have opened each of Northern Arizona’s seven games this season.
“You look at any position group where their cohesiveness means a lot to our productivity, I’m going to compare it to the defensive secondary, you make a mistake back there and it is a huge event, it's a huge deal,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers. “The O-line is the same way -- one guy makes a mistake and it is huge. To have those guys maintain the line the way they have this year is outstanding for our continuity and consistency.”
While the group hasn’t been as strong as last season, with 14 sacks allowed in seven games as opposed to eight in 11 during the 2016 season, the mix of new full-time starters and former All-Big Sky honorees has nullified the worries about inexperience behind them.
Noshi and Pruitt, the two redshirt sophomores, entered 2017 with little previous playing time before earning the starting spots and holding down the right side. Shank and Porter, All-Big Sky second and third team honorees respectfully last year, have led the group in their senior seasons. Behind the starting five, only senior Nick Davis has consistent playing experience in past seasons.
“You have traction and are getting better each week as opposed to integrating new guys into the lineup -- which has been a problem like everybody who goes through that. It can be really tricky at this level to get the five guys working together," Souers said. “It speaks to their training; the better trained you are in the offseason, the stronger you are coming into it. I think those guys were committed and did a great job.”
PREPPING FOR TOP PASS RUSH
Northern Arizona’s offensive line group’s toughest test awaits in Saturday's Homecoming game, with three Sacramento State defensive linemen ranking in the top 35 in sacks per game while the Hornets as a team rank third in the nation with 27 sacks in seven games this year.
Needing to protect quarterback Case Cookus and the nation’s ninth-best pass attack, the group will face off against a threat no team has slowed this year. With multiple sacks in every game, and at least three sacks in five of the seven, the Hornets’ pass rush has wreaked havoc on opposing offenses throughout the year. Twice the team has reached six sacks in a game, against Weber State and Idaho State, both on their home field in Sacramento.
Defensive ends George Obinna, with his 7.5 sacks landing him fourth nationally in sacks per game, and Ben Sorensen (5.5 sacks, 15th) have held down the edge for the Hornets. Defensive tackle Dariyn Choates adds five from the interior, ranking 31st.
“There are a lot of linemen that play run first, pass second. They play pass first, run second, so their ends are tilted and their butts are in the air like a track stance and they are getting off the ball,” Souers said. “They are ferocious pass rushers -- which has been really disruptive and you see that not only in sacks, but in turnovers. The number of interceptions they have had is a reflection of that.”
The Hornets’ 11 interceptions trail only the Lumberjacks’ 12 in the Big Sky Conference, with both teams inside the FCS top 15 in picks. Sacramento State tops Northern Arizona in the turnover margin, sitting at plus-9 to plus-6, with each side forcing 15 in seven games this year. Thanks in part to their strong pass rush, the Hornets lead the nation in third-down percentage defense, with opponents converting just 25.3 against Sacramento State.
While junior quarterback Kevin Thomson shined for the Hornets in the first six games of the season after arriving from UNLV, he missed last week’s victory at North Dakota with an undisclosed injury.
With little information available for Northern Arizona (5-2, 4-0 Big Sky), Sacramento State (4-3, 3-1 Big Sky) currently lists three quarterbacks as potential starters. Along with Thomson, who sits third in the nation with 17.4 yards per completion, junior Wyatt Clapper and freshman Roman Ale are listed on the team’s depth chart.
Ale led the Hornets to a road win last week, the school’s third 3-1 Big Sky start in history and on pace for the team’s best season since a 7-5, 4-4 season back in 2014 before combining for just four wins the past two years.
Throwing for 263 yards and two touchdowns on 19 passes and 13 completions, Ale continued Sacramento State’s run of big plays in the passing game in an offense ranking inside the top 20 nationally in points per game, total offense and rush offense.
“They have a tall receiver that’s a big play guy. I think that’s the guy that has the highest yards-per-catch average,” Souers said of 6-3 Andre Lindsey, who averages 31.8 yards per reception to lead the nation. “Then they have got a smaller guy who is really explosive, so they have got weapons.”
Sitting seventh nationally in yards per catch, Jaelin Ratliff’s 24.4 yards per reception gives Sacramento State one of the nation’s most explosive passing attacks. Lindsey’s 17 catches include five touchdowns, as the athletic receiver’s resume also includes a gold medal in the Big Sky Conference Outdoor Track and Field 110-meter hurdles, a race that also included Northern Arizona cornerback Khalil Dorsey. Ratliff’s also scored three touchdowns on just 20 receptions.
Ale redshirted last season after winning a CIF LA City Section title and the California State Division I-A championship on Sacramento State’s field as a senior at Narbonne High School, which is located 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles.
However, Ale has only carried the ball twice for negative three yards, while Thomson leads the Hornets with 422 rushing yards on 61 carries. Clapper threw just 10 passes in the first two games of the season after transferring from Modesto Junior College during the summer.
With a run game split between four different running backs, Souers admitted Northern Arizona might see a different attack than usual.
“They have a couple of different options,” Souers said. “If it was me and my starter was out, maybe they go to a run to possess the ball and play field position. By the numbers and size and all that, we are going to see a well matched game.”