With the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks venturing out of conference play for the final time this season, one of the nation’s best defenses arrives at the Walkup Skydome Saturday.
Filling up the national FCS charts, the No. 11 Illinois State Redbirds rank second in rushing yards, passing yards and total defense as they have allowed just 166.5 yards per game through their first four contests. Also sitting first in third-down defense (19.3 percent), third in defensive scoring (8.8 points), second in first downs allowed (38) and second in pass efficiency defense (75.02), the Redbirds (4-0, 2-0 MVFC) present one of the toughest defenses the Lumberjacks (2-2, 2-0 Big Sky) have faced in years.
“It’ll be one of the better ones we see. We don’t see the likes of their size very often,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers. “They are physical and eat up a lot of space. You look at the guys that are 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6 on the end of the line of scrimmage, they have great range on blocking down balls and it is going to be a challenge to throw through. The physicality of their D front and linebackers, they are really well trained and well schooled in what they do.”
Topping out at 13 points allowed (twice in the first four games), Illinois State’s defensive scoring prowess stands even more impressive than shown on first glance. While allowing five touchdowns combined to Butler, Eastern Illinois, Missouri State and Indiana State, just three came directly against the defense.
A blocked punt led to one of Eastern Illinois’ two touchdowns, while a pick-six put Indiana State on the board for one of two scores last week. While the quartet of Illinois State's opponents haven't presented an offense as potent as Northern Arizona's, the defense's production still stands out. Of the three scores, two rushing touchdowns and the first passing touchdown allowed coming last week, none have come in the fourth quarter.
“They have earned the stats they have accumulated this year. It is on us to try to identify what they are in, what their intentions are, whatever posture they are going to play,” Souers said. “If they are going to be conservative, we have got to be patient, and if they are going to choke us out, then we have got to be smart in what we are going to do with it. We have to utilize the best matchups we can create on the field, and that’s tough.”
A three-year starter at cornerback, Davontae Harris highlights the Redbirds’ imposing defense. An All-Missouri Valley Football Conference first-teamer a year ago, Harris entered his senior season as a member of the Buck Buchanan Watch List.
Harris recorded 59 tackles last season, with 5.5 tackles for loss, 13 passes defended, two interceptions, a sack, a forced fumble and one hit on a quarterback. Through the first four games, the senior sits at 15 tackles with one for a loss, as well as an interception and quarterback hit.
With Elijah Marks recording two straight 100-yard games and sitting 15th nationally with 468 receiving yards, the potential of a matchup between the receiver and Harris pits two of the nation’s best against one another.
“They move him around a little bit, they like to blitz the boundary corner -- which he ends up doing a lot of it,” said Souers, with Harris not generally shadowing the opposing team’s top receiver. “He is a playmaker. I can see why they activate him that way to bring him into the front and put pressure on the quarterback.”
Harris ended up ejected from last season’s meeting with Indiana State due to a targeting penalty for a hit on Sycamores quarterback Isaac Harker, a game current Northern Arizona coaches Brian Sheppard and Gary Hyman won against the top-10 ranked Redbirds when coaching in Indiana last season.
MATCHING UP DEFENSIVELY
With Illinois State’s defense likely to cause problems for Northern Arizona’s offense despite its status as a top-10 passing attack nationally, the Lumberjacks’ defense will need to continue its recent run of success.
Allowing 30 points combined to Cal Poly and Northern Colorado, Northern Arizona’s defense bounced back from a tough performance against Western Illinois in the team’s last meeting with a MVFC team. After giving up 38 points and 422 yards to the Leathernecks, opponents ended up with less than 400 yards in each of the past two weeks.
“I think it is early on, we would like to keep seeing it. I am excited about their progress. Like I said and you get tired of me saying it, but they have put in a lot of work to get to this point,” said Lumberjacks defensive coordinator Andy Thompson. “To see them get some reward from that is the best thing as a coach and we just want to keep it continuing on.”
Forcing four takeaways from Cal Poly two weeks ago and another three against Northern Colorado, Northern Arizona turned four into points as a result with another two icing the final moments of the Cal Poly game.
Last week, Kam’ron Johnson’s second-quarter interception turned into a touchdown catch for Marks 3:25 later while Maurice Davison’s forced fumble and Chauntez Thomas’ recovery on the next drive put William Morehand into the end zone less than 40 seconds later.
Taylor Powell’s 85-yard interception return for a score in the fourth quarter capped off the defense’s strong day, with much of the work done by its junior class. Johnson, Davison and Powell all entered Northern Arizona as members of the 2015 recruiting class. Johnson’s play specifically took a jump forward -- he's picked off a pass in each of the past three games, the first three interceptions of his career.
“We are hungry to get better and we are a group that hasn't played a lot together,” Thompson said. “Every year is different, every week is different and it seems like really with who you are playing and what you are doing. Those guys have been consistent so far in making plays and we have got to continue that.”
Defensive lineman Jalen Goss remained sidelined and no longer listed on the team's official depth chart, while cornerback Cole Sterns also remained out of practice while still listed as the No. 2 corner behind Davison.