While senior Elijah Marks came away from last week’s victory at Cal Poly with his first career 200-yard receiving game, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks are likely to need more of the same this week.
After opponents threw just 55 passes against Northern Arizona (1-2, 1-0 Big Sky) in its first three games combined, the Northern Colorado Bears enter today 15th in the nation in passing offense. The Bears (2-1, 1-0) average 35 points per game, tied for 21st in the country.
“They are explosive, they have got the receivers and their quarterback has a strong arm,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers. “That guy gets into a rhythm, he is tough. You can see how they put points up not against just the Big Sky schools, but against Colorado as well.”
With Emmanuel Butler out for the season due to a shoulder injury, Marks stepped in as the Lumberjacks’ primary target in the nation’s fifth-best passing offense. Catching 14 passes for 206 yards and drawing three pass interference calls, Marks accounted for essentially half of quarterback Case Cookus’ production.
“Having (Butler) out is a big deal to our team, so it is just keeping the focus on winning,” Marks said. “We were 0-2 coming into Cal Poly and we needed that win. It was a big win for us and me being a senior leader for this team, I had to step my game up and just go out there and do what I do best.”
After the Bears joined the Big Sky Conference a decade ago, the Lumberjacks dominated the early meetings, winning seven straight from 2006 to 2013. The home team has won the past four meetings, two of those coming in Greeley, Colorado with Northern Arizona leaving with a 24-17 loss in 2014 and a 21-18 loss in 2016.
Turning the ball over five times in 2014, the Lumberjacks lost for the first time to the Bears while last season’s meeting came in Northern Arizona’s first game following Cookus’ broken collarbone.
In the lone meeting with Cookus under center, the Lumberjacks dominated the Bears 63-21 as the quarterback tied a school record with seven touchdown passes, four of which went to Butler.
“It has always been a tough matchup; our programs match up well to each other,” Souers said. “You look at our games up there, they have been nightmares for us. Although it did go well for us last time, there have been some barn burners in the dome against those guys. So we realize what we are up against, but it is Big Sky Conference time -- every game is going to be that way.”
After a pair of tough games, with Cookus throwing three interceptions and losing a pair of fumbles on strip sacks, Northern Arizona’s offense righted itself in California last week.
Cookus threw for 406 yards, nearly beating his career best of 407 against Sacramento State in 2015, while the Lumberjacks never turned the ball over against the Mustangs. Hitting Marks for a touchdown at the end of a nearly flawless seven-play, 80 yard drive to open the game, Cookus gave the Lumberjacks their first lead of the year.
While Northern Colorado allowed Idaho State to score 42 points in last week’s last-second victory, the Bears sacked the Bengals six times while facing 24 pass attempts, led by Keifer Morris’ three.
“They make you play patient, they take away big plays, they rotate a lot of different coverages and they make the quarterback hold on to the ball,” Souers said. “When you do that, that’s when you take sacks. We have to be smart to identify what coverage we are seeing and attack the soft spots. Case had a good week of practice and I think he is seeing the game about as well as you can see it, now it is time to execute.”
A THROWBACK PERFORMANCE
Marks left Desert Edge High School in Goodyear holding multiple AIA 4A Conference records, with his senior year seeing multiple performances similar to last week.
Highlighted by a 4A record 324-yard game, Marks caught a record-breaking 113 receptions and 2,153 yards during his senior season. His 26 touchdowns, including a record five scores against Shadow Ridge, ended up as the 4A record for a season and added to the career record of 44.
Marks finished four different games with more than 200 yards receiving as a high school senior, but counted the performance much more meaningful in college.
“In college it is a big difference. You have talented players, they are able to read the game better,” Marks said. “Just having a big game like that, it is a blessing and I am looking forward to doing it again the next game.”
A PHYSICAL BATTLE
Already without Jalen Goss and Aaron Andrews last week at Cal Poly, Northern Arizona’s defensive line took further hits as both Hamilton To'o and Quentin Robinson temporarily left last week’s game as well.
Plagued by defensive line issues a week ago, Northern Arizona rebuilt the position group with multiple recruits. Only two of the team’s 10 players listed on the two-deep roster played a snap for Lumberjacks before this season.
“We recruited a lot of d-linemen to replace the ones we had and it is just unfortunate that that's where they have hit,” Souers said of the team’s injuries. “That Cal Poly game was a very physical game, and it exacted a toll. We have just got to make sure the next man up is capable of keeping the standard of play where it needs to be. We are going to lean on some guys that haven't had as many reps, but that’s the game.”
Quarterback Jacob Knipp returned to the starting quarterback job for the Bears, having started eight of 11 games as a freshman before an injury ended his 2016 season just two games in. Trae Riek also returns as the team’s top running back, having rushed for more than 700 yards in each of the past two seasons, and currently sits at 267 yards on 57 carries.
Knipp’s thrown for 853 yards in Northern Colorado’s three games, completing 56 of 87 passes for seven touchdowns and just one interception. Three different receivers have totaled more than 100 yards receiving in first three games of the season, led by Alex Wesley’s 261 on 15 receptions and All-Big Sky Conference special teams player Hakeem Deggs' 13 catches for 138 yards.