Faced with one of the best pass rushes in the nation, No. 18 Northern Arizona (6-2, 5-0 Big Sky) and its offensive line survived its meeting a week ago with Sacramento State.
While Case Cookus went down four times, once apiece at the hands of four different Hornets, the sophomore quarterback took responsibility postgame saying he held onto the ball too long.
“They definitely were very solid in the pass rush,” said NAU senior center Blake Porter of Sacramento State, which remained third in the FCS with 3.88 sacks per game. “We like to pride ourselves on pass protection, we like to communicate and think we get it done pretty well, so I think we did alright. We had a few hiccups where there were a couple sacks, but there was nothing major and I think we rose to the challenge.”
Still all healthy, Northern Arizona’s five starters on the offensive line will face another test on the road at the Montana Grizzlies (5-3, 3-2) Saturday.
Sitting behind only Sacramento State in the Big Sky, Montana’s 25 sacks also rank 13th nationally with 16 coming in their four home games. While eight sacks came against Savannah State, whose 41 sacks allowed ranks 122nd of 123 FCS schools, Montana put up another five sacks against Eastern Washington, as Gage Gubrud threw 65 passes for 549 yards.
With Montana averaging 24,104 fans per game, easily the best in the Big Sky with Montana State’s 18,864 average sitting second, Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers said the crowd will be a challenge for the offense as usual in Missoula.
“It gets loud, but they can only be loud for so long,” Porter said. “You just have to simplify things and not overthink things. It is harder to communicate and just as long as you have a good silent cadence it shouldn't be too much of an issue.”
Northern Arizona’s other concern is its recent run of penalty yardage, as the Lumberjacks lead the Big Sky with 79.9 penalty yards per game and sit 106th nationally. Topping out with 13 penalties for 140 yards last week against Sacramento State, Northern Arizona has had at least 70 yards in penalties in each of the past five games.
“We have got to avoid a lot of the procedure penalties that come to people ...that aren’t used to that environment,” Souers said. “There’s going to be challenges leading up to the actual snap of the ball and the play itself.”
Souers said Montana will throw multiple looks and pressures at opposing offenses, as the Grizzlies try to push teams out of their comfort zones by blitzing.
“They are going to try to blitz and get you off the field one way or the other,” Souers said. “They don’t want their offense sitting on the sideline getting cold.”
While Souers said he felt the offensive line has slowly been improving week to week, the line itself has continued to gain comfort as the quintet keeps playing alongside one another.
With Porter at center, Tyler Shank at left guard, Cole Habib at left tackle, Malik Noshi at right guard and Jamison Pruitt at right tackle, Saturday will be the ninth straight game with the same starting group.
Porter has started 37 of Northern Arizona’s last 38 games dating back to the middle of his freshman season, while Shank has started 29 of the last 30 and Habib started the team’s last 19 games.
“It’s really comforting, we used to be shuffling the deck every week and you never knew who was going to start,” Porter said. “Having a pretty solid five, knock on wood, has been pretty awesome because you kind of get to learn how to play with each other and it becomes a lot easier when you have experience with the guy next to you.”
FINISHING OFF DRIVES
Despite averaging 35.1 points per game, 18th in the nation, Northern Arizona’s offense could step up its efficiency in the red zone.
While ranking 11th in the Big Sky, scoring on 73.7 percent of their attempts in the red zone, Northern Arizona has still scored at least 37 points in each of its last five games. Still adjusting to the loss of Emmanuel Butler, and with Elijah Marks questionable for Saturday’s game, Souers said the Lumberjacks are hoping to improve near the goal line as they gain familiarity with their new receivers.
“A lot of the red zone stuff is rapport, you throw to a guy all summer, you know where he is going to be and when he is going to be there because the windows are so much tighter down there,” Souers said. “That’s when you are throwing the ball and people are challenging us with different looks. I think we are getting better as we go and in the red zone, it’s getting used to who is in the lineup.”
Boding well for Northern Arizona are Montana's struggles with pass defense. Not only last in the Big Sky, the Grizzlies enter Saturday's game with the fourth-worst pass defense in all of the FCS, averaging 292.2 yards allowed per game.
With starting Montana safety Justin Strong still suspended following his arrest for assault in Pullman, Washington, NAU QB Case Cookus could see his numbers continue to rise up the national charts.
Passing for a career-high-tying 407 yards last week against Sacramento State, Cookus now sits seventh in yards per game (328.9), 13th in passing touchdowns (19) and sixth in completions per game (25.38). The numbers earned Cookus a place on the 36-player watch list for the College Football Performance Awards (CFPA) FCS National Performer of the Year this week, the same award the quarterback won as a freshman in 2015.