Entering Missoula, Montana, as the favorite and in pursuit of a Big Sky Conference title, the No. 18 Northern Arizona Lumberjacks discovered a wild way to severely handicap their chances.
With All-American quarterback Case Cookus peeling back on a reverse to block Montana’s James Banks, officials flagged him for a targeting penalty resulting in his ejection. Tasked with leading the offense, true freshman Stone Smartt fell victim to seven sacks as the Grizzlies (6-3, 4-2 Big Sky) held on for a 17-15 victory.
"I've never had that happen before, so I have no experience in dealing with that kind of a scenario," said Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers, who hadn't seen a replay of the hit when asked postgame.
Struggling to string together drives, with just two surpassing 50 yards in Cookus’ absence, the Lumberjacks (6-3, 5-1) still found themselves with a chance to tie the game on their final drive. Starting at their own 45-yard line, their second-best field position of the game, the Lumberjacks went 55 yards in 11 plays, culminating in a 2-yard touchdown run by Smartt.
After completing a 14-yard pass to Hunter Burton and earning a defensive holding against Elijah Marks, Smartt, Cory Young and Joe Logan worked their way to the goal line on the ground. Faced with a third-and-goal from the 2, Smartt pushed his way into the end zone, with Souers praising the poise of the freshman quarterback on the final drive.
Electing to pass out of the run-pass option on the ensuing two-point conversion, Smartt’s attempt fell incomplete as Smartt missed Wallace Gonzalez open in the end zone, ending the Lumberjacks' six-game win streak.
Smartt finished the game 12 of 25 passing for just 99 yards, with his 18 rush attempts resulting in a net of 48 yards after accounting for the yards in sacks.
UNFORCED ERRORS ADD UP
With Cookus running the offense on Northern Arizona’s opening drive, the Lumberjacks rolled down the field with big completions to Burton and Young. Converting a fourth-and-1 at midfield along the way, the Lumberjacks settled for a field goal try on fourth-and-4 from the Montana 8. However, Griffin Roehler’s attempt went wide left to keep Northern Arizona scoreless.
Two drives later, after Smartt capped off his first drive with a field goal by Roehler, a three-and-out by Northern Arizona at its own 15 resulted in a 48-yard punt return touchdown by Montana’s Jerry Louie-McGee.
Finally answering back with a 10-yard touchdown pass from Smartt to Nate Stinson, finishing the Lumberjacks’ best drive of the day at 65 yards, Roehler’s extra point attempt bounced off of the hand of Montana’s Jesse Sims and put Northern Arizona up 9-7.
With a Northern Arizona fumble giving Montana one of its many short fields, the Grizzlies retook the lead just three plays later on a 2-yard run by Alijah Lee with 4:47 left in the third quarter. Hoping to answer right back, the Lumberjacks bypassed a field goal attempt from the Montana 26 with Smartt sacked on a fourth-and-12.
The Grizzlies' average starting field position ended up being their own 44, while the Lumberjacks' drives averaged a starting point of their own 28.
"Our special teams play was not up to standard of what we expect," Souers said. "I thought that gave us a real disadvantage in field position. The punt return they had, a missed field goal, a missed PAT, were all things that can add up in a close ball game."
However, no mistake loomed larger than Cookus’ decision to pull back on a broken trick play. Tossing the ball to the left to Young, Cookus rolled right as Gonzalez received the reverse pitch. Designed for a throw downfield by Gonzalez, the tight end pulled the ball down and ran for a 2-yard gain before being forced out of bounds. The block in question from Cookus came roughly seven yards from the sideline, as Gonzalez pulled up on the play alongside it, with replays appearing to show the quarterback's head or shoulder making contact with the defenders head.
STOPPING A WEAKENED OPPONENT
With the offense struggling, Northern Arizona’s defense put forth another strong effort. Sending third-string quarterback Caleb Hill to the sidelines after one drive with negative 11 yards for the quarterback, Montana turned to former starter and current wide receiver Makena Simis.
Simis completed just 6 of 15 passes for 44 yards, but ran for 101 on 19 rush attempts as Montana finished with just 218 yards of total offense. Simis matched Cookus’ final passing yards total and didn’t record his fourth completion until the third quarter.
"Our defense came in and played lights out, they really only gave up one touchdown," Souers said. "Montana manufactured kind of a wildcat offense and I thought our guys did a good job of adapting, it was inspired play."
Converting just 2 of 13 on third down, and neither of two fourth-down attempts, Montana’s two offensive scoring drives came with less than 40 yards. Along with the short field leading to Lee’s touchdown run, Montana added a fourth-quarter field goal as it faced a fourth-and-2 from the Northern Arizona 17.
Also finding ways to disrupt any success on offense, the Grizzlies turned the ball over inside the Lumberjacks’ 10 twice. First fumbling at the Northern Arizona 8 with under two minutes remaining in the second quarter, Montana also threw an interception at the Northern Arizona 9 early in the third.
While Montana turned its fumble recovery into seven points, Northern Arizona failed to cash in Khalil Dorsey’s interception or Chauntez Thomas’ fumble recovery.
With Cookus’ ejection coming in the first half, he will be eligible to return for kickoff of next weekend’s regular season home finale against Montana State (4-5, 4-2). Now sitting in a three-way tie for first in the Big Sky with Southern Utah (7-2, 5-1) and Weber State (7-2, 5-1), Northern Arizona no longer controls its destiny for an outright conference title.
Weber State faces two of the Big Sky’s worst teams, Portland State and Idaho State, in the final two weeks while Northern Arizona and Southern Utah will meet in Cedar City in the regular season finale.
AROUND THE BIG SKY
WEBER STATE 28, EASTERN WASHINGTON 20
CHENEY, Wash. (AP) — Stefan Cantwell threw three touchdown passes and David Jones ran 24 yards for a score with 2:26 left in the game and Weber State defeated Eastern Washington.
Cantwell was 21-of-31 passing for 230 yards. He connected with Treshawn Garrett on a 14-yard screen pass, Drew Batchelor for a 1-yard score and then found Garrett down the middle for a 26-yard TD as the Wildcats (7-2, 5-1 Big Sky Conference) led 21-14 entering the fourth quarter.
Roldan Alcobendas had 25- and 26-yard field goals as the Eagles (5-4, 4-2) closed within 1 midway through the fourth quarter, but Weber State responded with a nine-play, 65-yard drive and Jones' sweep around the right end.
Gage Gubrud went 22 of 42 for 239 yards and 23-yard touchdown to Nsimba Webster in the second quarter but was intercepted by Preston Smith at midfield with 23 seconds to play. Webster finished with seven catches for 94 yards.