Rather than assuring themselves a victory against a Division II opponent early in the season, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks will instead get a look at what a potential FCS playoff matchup would entail.
Hosting the No. 22 Western Illinois Leathernecks in the Walkup Skydome Saturday, the Lumberjacks will seek redemption from last season’s 34-20 loss in Macomb nearly a year to the date later.
“Historically, we have been getting ready for Western New Mexico or someone like that during this week,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers following Tuesday’s practice. “We are trying to hit on the same page on offense and defense, and the kicking game. We are not quite there yet.”
In last season’s Week Two matchup, the Leathernecks held the ball for nearly 37 minutes of play, rolled up 539 yards of offense and scored three second-half touchdowns to come away with the victory.
While some of Western Illinois’ key contributors to the victory graduated, the team remains relatively the same to the one Northern Arizona saw in 2016.
“Very similar -- they replaced those guys who left with similar type athletes,” Souers said. “Their quarterback is back, and he was a guy that really put it to us in the second half last year. They are an experienced team. We are seeing this and treating it like it is a playoff-caliber game.”
LOOKING AT THE LEATHERNECKS
Quarterback Sean McGuire didn’t need to do much in last week’s opener against Tennessee Tech, with just 130 yards and 10-of-20 passing, but the junior hooked up with Lance Lenoir often in 2016.
Now a member of the Dallas Cowboys practice squad, Lenoir caught 11 passes for 231 yards as McGuire finished 22 of 31 for 336 yards and a pair of touchdowns. While six players caught just one pass last week, Jaelon Acklin caught five for 79 yards and a touchdown from McGuire. Returning to the backfield with McGuire, Steve McShane rushed for 155 yards on 24 carries with a pair of touchdowns.
How much the Lumberjacks see of McShane is undetermined, as an ankle injury forced him from last week’s game after just seven carries and as many yards. Scott Holland of The McDonough County Voice reported McShane’s sprained ankle is not serious, but is week-to-week with no definite timetable. Despite the injury, he remains listed atop the Leathernecks’ depth chart, ahead of last week’s rushing leader Max Norris.
Filling in during the season half, Norris carried for 135 yards on 19 carries with two touchdowns against Tennessee Tech, while another seven players registered carries as Western Illinois finished with 316 yards on the ground.
After allowing Arizona to run for 506 yards a week ago, Northern Arizona’s ability to slow the ground game will factor into its success in its home opener.
“The distance between game one and game two is usually your largest jump in improvement,” Souers said. “We need it in a game like Western Illinois. I feel strongly that we will come out and play better than we did last Saturday.”
MATCHING THE RUN GAME
While the Western Illinois run game finished its first week with an impressive rushing total, Northern Arizona produced the same against Arizona. Even though the Lumberjacks suffered the loss, both Cory Young and Joe Logan came away with 100-yard games and all three of Northern Arizona’s touchdowns.
The two will soon be joined by a returning Nate Stinson, leaving the Lumberjacks with multiple options to alleviate the pressure on quarterback Case Cookus to constantly move the ball through the air.
Standing in the core of Western Illinois’ defense will be preseason All-American linebacker Brett Taylor, who finished last year's game with 10 tackles -- including two for loss and a sack. The Leathernecks’ other three leading tacklers from the last meeting with the Lumberjacks also return, with Quentin Moon at linebacker and both Xavier Rowe and Justin Fitzpatrick in the secondary. Moon added 1.5 tackles for loss including a sack, a quarterback hit and a blocked extra point.
Northern Arizona’s offense took a 13-3 lead with a pair of touchdown receptions from Elijah Marks and Emmanuel Butler in the first quarter. After Cookus hit Marks from 42 yards out on the first drive of the game, a trick play resulted in Butler’s score from 37 yards off of a pass by Hunter Burton.
Along with Stinson picking up his workload in practice this week, receiver William Morehand and tight end Harrison Goebel increased their participation as they work back from injuries.
While the team’s starting 11 on each side emerged from the Arizona game healthy, Hunter Correll missed practice due to illness mid-week and freshman Stone Smartt took additional snaps with the second unit.