Potentially playing the final home game with Jerome Souers as the team’s head coach, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks came away with one of the most dramatic victories in the past few seasons.
While the Montana State Bobcats (4-6, 4-3 Big Sky) crossed the goal line for a touchdown with 32 seconds left, a potential game-winning two-point conversion fell short Saturday in the Walkup Skydome as the Lumberjacks (7-3, 6-1) held on for the 37-36 victory and kept their Big Sky Conference title hopes alive.
“Two-point plays in that setting, you don’t expect anything. You know you are going to get something, but it could be anything,” Souers said. “Let’s face it, they had momentum and they were going to make a play on that momentum. The best chance to beat us might have been from three yards out with that much time left on the clock rather than going to overtime. I respect them for that attempt, that takes courage.”
As Montana State’s Chris Murray dropped back on the play, freshman nickelback Damahny Whittle converged onto the speedy quarterback. Breaking down to avoid getting run by, which Murray found success doing against Northern Arizona’s defense throughout the day, Whittle forced an errant throw into the end zone.
With the ball falling incomplete for the stop, the Lumberjacks survived the late score by the Bobcats and entered next week’s regular-season finale at Southern Utah with a shot to earn an outright championship.
“Honestly, I wasn’t even doing my job. It was my family up in heaven talking to me,” Whittle said. “I was supposed to drop back, but they pushed me forward to go get him, so I just went after him.”
The stop came moments after a pair of potentially heartbreaking plays for Northern Arizona’s defense. After stopping three straight run plays beginning at their own 32, the Lumberjacks forced the Bobcats into a fourth-and-9 with just 50 seconds on the clock.
Throwing to the first-down marker on the left sideline, Murray found Jabarri Johnson for a 10-yard gain. While Maurice Davison broke up the first-down throw into the end zone from the 21, Murray’s next attempt went for a 21-yard touchdown to Kevin Kassis with just 32 seconds remaining.
“The first thing we said was we have got to turn it up,” Whittle said of the defense following the touchdown. “We knew the situation and what it was going to come down to, so we all looked at each other and told each other we got ourselves and let’s get it done.”
Whittle and the Northern Arizona defense found itself protecting a lead after the Lumberjacks’ offense cashed in a crucial stop.
With Case Cookus throwing an interception, the first and only turnover of the game for either side, and 8:38 left in the fourth quarter tied 30-30, Northern Arizona forced Montana State’s offense back off the field in just three plays.
Murray finished the day with 85 yards on 16 carries and two touchdowns, while running back Nick LaSane added 19 carries and 184 yards with another touchdown, and the Bobcats finished with 300 yards on the ground.
However, with a one-yard run for LaSane, an incompletion from Murray and a big loss on a screen play, the Lumberjacks put the ball back in Cookus’ hands with 7:12 left, 71 yards from the goal line.
“Like any option offense, if they catch you in the wrong call, you are going to pay for it, it’s what they do,” Souers said. “Our run defense is capable of being better than that. I thought in the second half when we cranked it up, adjustments were being made against their run attack and helped achieve that. We made some huge stops when we absolutely had to have them.”
Cookus, who finished 23-of-38 passing for 314 yards, immediately put Montana State on its heels with a 30-yard completion to Chancellor Brewington on the left sideline and added a 21-yard gain to Elijah Marks on the right sideline two plays later.
After a pair of runs by Cory Young put Northern Arizona at the Montana State 2, Joe Logan took a direct snap up the middle for his second touchdown of the night to go with 142 yards on 19 carries. Meanwhile, Young added 86 yards on 18 attempts.
While Cookus ended the day with just one touchdown pass, a 7-yard slant to Brewington in the third quarter, Northern Arizona’s quarterback worked the seam and fade routes to Marks, Brewington and Hunter Burton throughout the day.
Marks registered his seventh 100-yard receiving day and broke the 1,000 yard mark with nine catches for 123 yards as he said he felt back to himself following a knee injury that limited him in recent weeks. Burton added 61 yards on four grabs, while Brewington came away with 63 yards on three catches, and Northern Arizona drew three pass interference calls for an additional 45 yards.
“Some of those seam throws, they pay a lot of money for. He’s not getting paid that, but I make reference to that because that's a skill level way above what you normally see.” Souers said of Cookus. “They were beautiful, the receivers are laying out for them, and it really makes our offense special when you can create and make plays like that.”
BATTLING ON THE GROUND
While Murray and Cookus each hit second-half touchdown passes, all four of the game’s first-half touchdowns and seven total scores came on the ground.
Northern Arizona elected to punch its goal line plays in from short yardage, with Logan and Young scoring from two yards out, and Cookus adding his own four-yard touchdown run up the middle.
However, Logan’s 75-yard touchdown run just 28 seconds before halftime provided Northern Arizona the highlight for its season-best 235 yards on the ground. Taking the ball off-tackle to the right, Logan squeezed through the hole created by a pulling block from left guard Tyler Shank, broke a tackle in the hole and sprinted to the right sideline while outrunning a pair of Montana State defensive backs.
“I had seen like an all-out blitz and I was like alright, I am going to have to squeeze through here,” said Logan of the longest run of his career. “Shank made a magnificent block and from there it was just daylight. All I had to do was run, I had the easy part.”
Trailing 14-10 before the touchdown, the run appeared to give Northern Arizona the lead, but a blocked extra point went back 98 yards in the hands of Bryson McCabe and tied the score at 16.
Montana State had its fair share of long runs as well, with Murray scoring from 20 and 25 yards out for the Bobcats first two touchdowns while LaSane added gains of 22 and 46 in the first half. The senior running back kept his strong day going with a 74-yard gain on the second play of the second half, cashing in the score on the next play after Northern Arizona Khalil Dorsey tripped him up at the 1.
However, LaSane rushed for just four yards on his final five carries of the game and Murray managed just five yards on his last four runs as the Bobcats turned to the air. After completing just 5 of 10 passes for 49 yards in the first three quarters, Murray hit 7 of 9 for 106 yards and two scores in the fourth quarter.
ONE TO WIN IT
Sending their seniors and coach out with a win in potentially their final home game of the year, the Lumberjacks sit with a Big Sky title within reach despite the unexpected events of the season.
With Emmanuel Butler missing all but two games of his senior season and Souers soon finishing his 20-year tenure at the school, Northern Arizona remains in a three-way tie for first in the Big Sky. Set to face the Southern Utah Thunderbirds (8-2, 6-1) in Cedar City on Saturday, one of the two schools will earn at least a share of the conference title.
“You can splash a whole lot of credit on our coaching staff and our players for having the integrity to keep their focus when there's a lot of exterior distractions,” Souers said. “Very proud of the way they have maintained their goals, maintained their focus and they are playing for each other and playing very hard.”
Weber State (8-2, 6-1) faces Idaho State (4-6, 2-5) at home in its finale, with the Big Sky’s automatic playoff bid going to the Thunderbirds should they beat the Lumberjacks. Should Northern Arizona win and tie with Weber State, the results of the Montana-Montana State game could play a role in the tiebreaker as the Lumberjacks and Wildcats did not play head-to-head this season.
Depending on the results of the final week, Northern Arizona could host a game in the FCS playoffs.
AROUND THE BIG SKY
EASTERN WASHINGTON 21, NORTH DAKOTA 14
FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Eric Barriere threw for a touchdown and ran for another in his first start, Sam McPherson rushed for 118 yards while throwing for one score and catching a TD pass and Eastern Washington topped North Dakota.
Barriere, filling in for suspended starter Gage Gubrud, connected with McPherson for a 14-yard touchdown in the second quarter and scored on a 1-yard sneak on the final play of the first half to give the Eagles a 21-7 lead.
MONTANA 44, NORTHERN COLORADO 14
MISSOULA, Mont. — Freshman quarterback Gresch Jensen threw three touchdown passes and ran for another score, and Montana intercepted five passes in a win over Northern Colorado.
Jensen, returning to the lineup after missing the Grizzlies' 17-15 win over Northern Arizona last week with a concussion, broke a 7-7 tie with a 6-yard pass to Makena Simis at 3:43 of the first quarter.
In the second quarter the Grizzlies (7-3, 5-2 Big Sky Conference) used a Jeremy Calhoun scoring run and a 24-yard touchdown pass to Samori Toure to push the lead to 37-7.
WEBER STATE 63, PORTLAND STATE 17
PORTLAND, Ore. — Treshawn Garrett ran for 88 yards and three touchdowns as Weber State scored 56 unanswered points and cruised to a win over winless Portland State.
Stefan Cantwell threw for 157 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score before leaving the second half to backup Braden Miles. Kevin Smith ran for 143 yards and two touchdowns and David Jones had 103 rushing yards and a score. Rashid Shaheed had a touchdown catch and a 90-yard kickoff return for another score.
SOUTHERN UTAH 47, UC DAVIS 27
DAVIS, Calif. -- Patrick Tyler was 26-of-36 passing for 370 yards and three touchdowns and Jay Green ran for two scores to help Southern Utah beat UC Davis for its fifth-consecutive win.
Green had 64 yards rushing on 18 carries and Ty Rutledge finished with three receptions for 105 yards and two scores for the Thunderbirds (8-2, 6-1 Big Sky Conference).
After Isiah Olave intercepted a Tyler pass at the UCD 4, Southern Utah's Jarmaine Doubs had a pick-6 in the end zone to make it 7-0 in the opening minutes.