After trading field goals for much of the second quarter following a scoreless first, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks offense put it all together moments before halftime.
Assembling a seven-play, 75-yard drive in one minute and two seconds, the Lumberjacks broke into the end zone for the first time against the No. 11 Illinois State Redbirds on their way to scoring 21 straight points and taking the 37-16 victory Saturday afternoon in the Walkup Skydome. Entering the day allowing 8.8 points per game, Illinois State’s season total of 35 points allowed ended up surpassed by Northern Arizona before the game ended.
“We saw a different style of play, a different game in the first half. That’s a little more of a playoff-style of a game where there’s a lot of defense,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers, who won for the 10th time in his past 11 tries on Family Weekend. “There's some feeling out going on, trying to get sorted out. Their defense, as you got to see, was very disruptive in the early going, and it took us a while to get on track, but what held us in was the stellar defensive play.”
Northern Arizona managed negative five yards through the first quarter, with four three-and-out drives all lasting under 1:30. However, a pair of fourth-down conversions helped put the Lumberjacks on the board as Griffin Roehler hit a 29-yard field goal.
Looking to Elijah Marks, who finished with eight catches for 130 yards, quarterback Case Cookus moved Northern Arizona down the field while beating Illinois State’s top corner Davontae Harris. Catching a six-yard pass on fourth-and-1, Marks beat Harris, who is considered one of the top corners in the FCS.
Cookus found Marks for 23 yards four plays later on fourth-and-6, again through Harris’ coverage. While three straight incompletions ended the drive short of the end zone, Northern Arizona began to crack the No. 2 yardage allowed and No. 3 scoring defense in the FCS.
“I was watching film on him all week, I knew his technique,” Marks said of Harris. “I knew he was a bigger guy and kind of slow on the foot, so I knew if I used my speed to my advantage, then it's open shots all day.”
OPENING IT UP
Illinois State kicked field goals of 32 and 51 yards during the second quarter, with Roehler connecting on a career-long 41-yarder in between that was set up by a 44-yard gain from Marks against Harris down the right sideline.
Tied at 6-6 with just 1:31 remaining in the first half, Northern Arizona opened up its attack and again converted on fourth down before retaking the lead for the final time.
“I think early, we were a little impatient. We were trying to make a lot of things happen at the pace and rate that we have been accustomed to through some of the games,” Souers said. “Their defense is very stingy, very disciplined, and they don't give up easy things, so it takes a little while to set things up.”
Hitting tight end Jonathan Baldwin for 26 yards to start the drive, Cookus completed 5 of 7 passes for all 75 yards of the scoring drive. After finding Wallace Gonzalez on fourth-and-3 at the Illinois State 37, Cookus found Marks behind Harris on the right sideline for a 32-yard touchdown two plays later.
“Watching film, we noticed the DBs had very bad eyes,” said Cookus, who finished 26-of-45 passing for 380 yards and three scores. “Being up by so much, they have gotten a little lazy in their coverage and things like that. So they are looking at me a lot and Elijah and all those guys were able to sneak loose. We were able to get those conversions and keep picking them apart.”
Entering the break with a 13-6 lead, Northern Arizona quickly stopped Illinois State thanks to Byron Evans’ second down sack. Needing just five plays to go 80 yards, the Lumberjacks converted their first third down on a 38-yard catch by Baldwin through the middle of the Redbirds’ defense. Two plays later, Northern Arizona’s misdirection allowed Gonzalez to find himself wide open to the left, with Cookus connecting for the 21-yard touchdown.
With Marks, Cookus and Souers citing Illinois State’s decision to play its safeties just eight yards deep as opposed to 10 or 12, the Lumberjacks rolled Cookus and most of their offense to the right as Gonzalez slipped out of the backfield to the left to take a 20-6 lead.
“We were trying to do it early, we were trying to set up some wide screens,” said Souers, as the Lumberjacks hoped to take advantage of the Redbirds’ pursuit of Cookus. “... Some of the double moves, or play actions and throwbacks were there. Credit to Brian Sheppard our offensive coordinator and our staff for getting some of these things put together.”
While Illinois State converted two of its first three third downs, Northern Arizona’s defense stopped seven straight beginning in the first quarter and ending in the third.
Running three down linemen and sending pressure from the second level, Northern Arizona moved out of its base defense on third downs while shutting down Illinois State’s offense for much of the day. Nickelback Josh Clarke recorded three tackles for loss, including a third-down sack, in the first quarter alone as he led the Lumberjacks with 11 tackles.
With just 30 points allowed in the past two weeks combined, Northern Arizona’s defense held Illinois State out of the end zone until 8:08 remaining in the game and to just 286 yards total. Adding another three interceptions, by Evans, Maurice Davison and Andrew Gose, the Lumberjacks have now picked off nine passes while facing 146 pass attempts, an average of one every 16.2.
“I know for me, I have never bonded with a group like this before,” said Clarke, playing in his first season with Northern Arizona after transferring from the College of San Mateo. “The defense is real close and tight. Coach says there’s going to be peaks and valleys, and even when there is we always stay together because we are so tight as a defense.”
Faced with a first-and-10 at their own 18, Northern Arizona’s defense essentially put the game away midway through the third quarter. Following a short, run, James Walton came up with a second-down sack and the Lumberjacks held a third-down pass a yard short of the marker. With the Redbirds fumbling the snap on fourth down and falling on the ball to end the play, the Lumberjacks held their 20-6 advantage.
PUTTING IT AWAY
Starting their drive backed up at their own 12, the Lumberjacks sent Stone Smartt onto the field at quarterback to run his designed package of plays. Despite finding minimal success, Smartt took a shot to his head from safety Mitchell Brees, leading to a personal foul and ejection for the Redbirds’ starter.
Granted a fresh set of downs at their 32, the Lumberjacks attacked deep with Chancellor Brewington catching a 45-yard pass up the sideline before throwing his own touchdown pass to Cookus from 23 yards out.
“We ran a similar trick play earlier on in the year, so this one was directed at me. I don’t know why, but coach trusted me with the ball,” Cookus said. “Chance got it to me, and he’s got a better completion percentage than me now.”
After throwing backward to his receiver, Cookus rolled to his left behind the team’s offensive line. Brewington feigned a look deep from the right side of the field before tossing back to Cookus who rolled up the left sideline behind a wall of blockers for a 27-6 lead.
AROUND THE BIG SKY
MONTANA 39, IDAHO STATE 31
POCATELLO, Idaho (AP) -- Gresch Jensen threw for 360 yards and four touchdowns and the Montana defense had six sacks to help the Grizzlies beat Idaho State on Saturday.
Jeremy Calhoun had 15 carries for 90 yards and his twin brother Justin Calhoun three reception for 86 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown, for Montana (4-2, 2-1 Big Sky Conference). Jesse Sims, a redshirt sophomore who came in with two career sacks, had 2 1/2 on Saturday.
Ty Flanagan scored on a 4-yard run to give Idaho State (3-3, 1-2) a 28-19 lead, but on Montana's next play from scrimmage Gresch connected with Samori Toure for a 71-yard completion to set up a Samuel Akem's 4-yard scoring catch -- the second of four straight touchdown drives by the Grizzlies.
MONTANA STATE 30, PORTLAND STATE 22
BOZEMAN, Mont. -- Chris Murray ran for two touchdowns and Montana State defeated Portland State 30-22 on Saturday.
The Bobcats (2-3, 2-1 Big Sky Conference) scored on their first possession of the second half and the Vikings' following possession to break the game open.
Murray's second touchdown, a 5-yard run, capped a 12-play, 75-yard drive on the ground. Then PSU punter Hayden Cowden dropped the snap in the MSU end zone and Chad Kanow recovered for another MSU touchdown and a 23-7 lead.
SOUTHERN UTAH 20, CAL POLY 14
CEDAR CITY, Utah -- Patrick Tyler threw for 223 yards and a touchdown and Southern Utah rolled to a victory over winless Cal Poly.
Tyler was 23-of-30 passing and connected with Terrance Beasley on a 26-yard touchdown that stretched Southern Utah's lead to 17-7 early in the second quarter. Earlier, Jay Green had a 55-yard touchdown run with 4:36 left in the first quarter to put the Thunderbirds (3-2, 1-1 Big Sky Conference) on top for good.
Manny Berz had 26- and 38-yard field goals for Southern Utah.