Facing yet another quarterback who relies heavily on his legs, the No. 24 Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (6-3, 5-1 Big Sky) will look to stay on track for a share of the Big Sky Conference title in their regular-season home finale against the Montana State Bobcats (4-5, 4-2).
Sophomore Chris Murray, in his first full season as Montana State’s starting quarterback, leads the Big Sky with 104.4 yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry. Rushing for 860 yards as a freshman, Murray already surpassed the total with 940 this season.
The Lumberjacks will have a lot on their hands when they try to slow him down on Saturday in the Walkup Skydome.
“He’s got open-field speed like a wide receiver, he reads holes in the line of scrimmage like a running back and he can throw it, so he is a like a triple-threat guy,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers. “He is an amazing athlete, really -- very few like him in the conference. We have a lot of respect for him.”
Murray rushed for 46 yards on 11 carries last season in Bozeman, adding 88 yards on 7 of 16 passes, as the Bobcats lost 20-14 to the Lumberjacks and backup quarterback Blake Kemp.
More often than not this season, opposing quarterbacks have held the ability to beat Northern Arizona with their legs, even more so than through the air. Arizona’s two primary quarterbacks, Brandon Dawkins and Khalil Tate, combined for 154 yards on the ground, well ahead of the team’s 89 passing yards.
Cal Poly’s Khaleel Jenkins rushed for 34 yards on 12 carries, nearly equaling his 15 pass attempts. Portland State’s Josh Kraght ran for 94 yards a month ago and Montana’s Makena Simis ran for 101 yards last week filling in at quarterback for the Grizzlies, running a similar scheme to that of Montana State.
“Honestly, it is very similar. Montana State has more diverse schemes because that is what they do. Montana will primarily throw, but what they were putting together was very, very similar,” Souers said. “We are going to see the fly, the power and a lot of misdirection. Their misdirection can really cause problems. They will look at the multiplicity, they will line up in three-back, two-back, one-back, empty and give you a lot of crazy stuff at the line of scrimmage.”
The main difference between Montana’s makeshift offense from a week ago and Montana State’s designs for Murray come in the differences in who operates it.
“What is hard was that quarterback was a big, physical, hard runner,” Souers said of Simis. “This guy is more of a rabbit in the backfield. He is so quick, and he gets to the open field and he will outrun you, he has got that kind of speed.”
Murray and the Bobcats average just 152.1 yards through the air, with the Lumberjacks' defense allowing a Big Sky-best 163.3 passing yards. It’ll be Northern Arizona’s rush defense, with 167.3 yards allowed per game, looking to give the Lumberjacks’ offense opportunities to attack.
KEEPING TEAMS ONE-DIMENSIONAL
Sitting at No. 11 in the FCS in passing yards allowed and fifth with 15 interceptions, Northern Arizona’s secondary is in the midst of its best season in the past few years.
With an interception in the past eight games, and four returned for touchdowns, the Lumberjacks owe their success to a few tweaks in the backend of the defense. Hoping to disguise their coverages better than in previous seasons, Northern Arizona’s secondary rarely lines up with what it is going to play while its defensive line stunts are designed to constantly change a quarterback’s throwing lanes.
“The coaching staff did a great job of bringing in a great corners coach, Coach (Vernon) Smith,” said corner Maurice Davison, with Smith and safeties Cody VonAppen aiding the secondary’s game plan. “In the film room, we always talk about things we can do to distract the quarterback and throw his mind off the game, and disguising has been one of the big pieces.”
Davison trails only Kam’ron Johnson in interceptions, with his three just one back of the safety’s four.
The two juniors entered Northern Arizona in the same recruiting class, a year ahead of starting safety Wes Sutton and a year before corner Khalil Dorsey, who each have two interceptions as well.
“It started game one and as the season progressed, we built as a family,” Davison said of the team’s defense. "We're really close. ... Kam’ron Johnson, we grew together. Wes, he is the oldest guy, so he is more the brains of the operation, and Khalil, he gives his all in practice, which helps me.”
With a rebuilt defensive line, reinforced by multiple junior college transfers and a few freshmen playing their first seasons, Northern Arizona has tallied 18 quarterback hurries and 17 sacks this year.
Trailing behind the Lumberjacks’ pace of 27 sacks in 11 games a year ago, the new defensive line will likely fail to reach that mark, but has still been partially responsible for the team’s 19 takeaways to rank inside the FCS’s top 30.
“They do an amazing job of getting back there,” Davison said. “It doesn't show up on the stat sheet, but just by them getting back there makes the quarterback throw ill-advised throws, and we do a great job of executing on those opportunities.”
WORKING TO 100 PERCENT
After missing the Sacramento State game two weeks ago and with a lightened workload last week at Montana, senior receiver Elijah Marks has closed in on returning to full strength.
“What he has got takes some time to regain your normal self. He has gotten closer and closer each day since it happened. Every day you see him get stronger and making more plays, you are just hoping it will translate into competition,” Souers said of Marks’ knee injury. “I have got a lot of confidence in him, he knows his body and knows what he can do. The way he was moving around, I think he is a lot closer to getting to full speed.”
William Morehand remains out for the Lumberjacks, with the team’s trio of freshmen wide receivers expected to continue filling primary roles on the outside.