For the second straight week, the No. 18 Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (6-2, 5-0 Big Sky) enter the week without an idea of who they will see at quarterback on the other side of the field.
Gresch Jensen, the Montana Grizzlies’ starter over the past five games, is currently in concussion protocol and day-to-day, Montana head coach Bob Stitt said on Monday. With Jensen, a redshirt freshman, already filling in for injured starter Reese Phillips, the Grizzlies (5-3, 3-2) could be forced to turn to Caleb Hill or Makena Simis.
“Let’s face it, we play different styles of quarterbacks every week, so we just have to translate who we are seeing that day into the gameplan that fits,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers. “I thought Andy Thompson, our defensive staff and our defensive players have done a great job of adapting what we need to do to be effective against who is under center.”
Faced with a similar conundrum last week against Sacramento State, Northern Arizona held the Hornets to just 5-of-20 passing for 91 yards as Roman Ale and Wyatt Clapper split relief duties with Kevin Thomson sidelined.
Each backup quarterback threw a pick-six in the game, with Wes Sutton taking back a second-quarter Clapper pass for 63 yards and Kam’ron Johnson striking against Ale for 46 yards in the fourth frame.
Hill and Simis have seen scattered playing time at quarterback in their Montana playing careers. Hill, a junior after transferring from Blinn Junior College in Texas, has thrown 15 passes in four games this year. Meanwhile, Simis has caught eight passes for 89 yards during his senior season while playing wide receiver, moving to the position after playing five games at quarterback in 2015.
Starting three games with injuries to the team’s top two quarterbacks, Simis went 2-1 as a starter and completed 63 of 115 passes for 740 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions.
“You got big arms, you got small arms, guys that can run, guys that are big, the plus-one guys,” Souers said. “The different quarterbacks out there that run the different offenses all have different strengths. What I like is that we have a great deal of schematic and tactical flexibility to adapt to the things we have seen.”
Ranked No. 15 in the nation with 178.2 passing yards allowed and ninth in passer efficiency defense at 101.7, Northern Arizona’s matchup with Montana will be its third against a top-15 passing team.
Holding the No. 2-ranked passing offense of UC Davis to just 207 yards, Northern Arizona kept the Aggies nearly 150 yards under its average of 346.9 yards while Northern Colorado, ranked 12th with 298.3, reached 301 yards in the Lumberjacks’ 48-20 victory.
Montana enters Saturday with the nation’s fourth-best total offense (485 yards), fifth-best passing offense (342.3 yards) and the ninth-best scoring offense (37.6 points).
Northern Arizona heads into Saturday with its own injury issues, as Elijah Marks is questionable for Saturday while he continues to recover from a knee injury. Held out last week against Sacramento State, Marks’ absence opened the door for freshman Chance Brewington to grab eight receptions for 119 yards and his first career receiving touchdown. Fellow freshmen Terrell Brown and Justis Stokes added seven catches for 64 yards and four catches for 41 yards, respectively, as William Morehand remained out as well with a foot injury.
On the opposite side of the ball, nickelback Josh Clarke is expected to return after missing last week against Sacramento State. Clarke sits fifth in tackles and second in tackles for loss despite missing last week.
ONE LAST TRIP
With Souers’ 20-year tenure at Northern Arizona set to end after this year, Saturday’s trip to Missoula will likely be his final as the Lumberjacks head coach.
“It’s always been great for me to go back to a lot of friends that were in Missoula, Montana, and are still friends today,” Souers said. “Had a lot of great memories there; I formulated my coaching ability and my skills there.”
Spending 12 seasons at Montana, the final nine as the Grizzlies defensive coordinator, Souers earned a national championship in 1995.
After Northern Arizona lost 14 straight games to Montana, the Lumberjacks knocked off the Grizzlies in Missoula in 2012 with 34 straight points en route to a 41-31 victory. Winning again in Flagstaff in 2013 and 2016, Souers and the Lumberjacks have won three of the past four meetings, with the lone loss coming in 2015, a 23-14 defeat that saw Northern Arizona shut out in the first half.
“There’s some special championships there. The things we have been trying to aspire to in this program here are the things we enjoyed in Missoula," Souers said. “In 20 years, you can effectively say it didn't happen the way that I was hoping it would happen for me. Going up there for one last time, with one last shot, to play at an elite level in an elite college environment will be a very special day for me.”