With their offense struggling early, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (7-5) fell behind and failed to battle back against the San Diego Toreros (10-2) in Saturday’s FCS first-round playoff game at the Walkup Skydome.
Going three-and-out on its first four drives, Northern Arizona allowed 17 points by San Diego before recording its first first down of the night, eventually losing 41-10. Along with the Lumberjacks' struggles on offense came poor field position for its defense, with the Toreros starting at an average of the Northern Arizona 49-yard line for their first four drives.
“I thought their D-line played well and there was some situations early where we just took turns making mistakes,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers. “You are trying to establish a drive, and we couldn't get out of the starting blocks. I don’t think we got a first down in the first quarter -- which has not been us.”
After a punt on its opening drive, a 24-yard field goal by San Diego’s Patrick Murray put the Toreros on the board roughly eight minutes into the game. From there, Northern Arizona’s quick exits on the offensive side allowed San Diego to drive through two short fields for passing touchdowns.
Anthony Lawrence hit Justin Priest, who reached back with his right hand with his body parallel to the ground, in the left corner of the end zone to cap off a seven-play, 48-yard drive late in the first quarter. The run continued just 1:57 later, with a 35-yard drive ending in a fourth-and-1 touchdown pass from Lawrence to a wide open Ross Dwelley, who found himself behind the defense that got lured in by the play-action.
“They know what they are doing, they have a strong understanding of their schemes and their players know it very well,” Souers said. “They give you a lot of formations, shifts and motion -- which is tough on your eyes. We had some new guys playing out there in the secondary who didn't have as much experience with that.”
Northern Arizona finally ended the run, with its fifth drive tallying 82 yards after the first four went for negative 29, as Terrell Brown caught his first career touchdown pass from six yards out. Electing to move quarterback Case Cookus out of a constantly collapsing pocket, Northern Arizona put its quarterback on the move with success.
Finding Justis Stokes open on back-to-back roll-out throws, Cookus then hit Hunter Burton for a pair of quick passes before the quarterback broke off a 32-yard run with a personal foul adding 15 to the end of the gain. Brown put Northern Arizona on the board on the next play, jumping over the coverage for a score in the left corner of the end zone.
However, San Diego erased Northern Arizona’s progress on the Lumberjacks' next drive. Strip-sacking Cookus on third-and-10, Jonathan Petersen inched closer to the NCAA FCS career sacks record and put the Toreros offense 14 yards away from the goal line.
After an incomplete pass, Emilio Martinez rolled into the end zone from 14 yards out and San Diego retook a 17-point lead at 24-7.
“It was just effort for us, I think we came in and we underestimated a few players and things like that,” Cookus said. “They were running around flying to the ball and we weren't able to get our run game going, and for us that was pretty much it. So you tip your hat to them, they brought their game today and they were flying around making those plays.”
Little changed in the second half, as Northern Arizona’s offense struggled with turnovers. It committed two more and reached three in a game for the first time since its Sept. 9 loss against Western Illinois.
Held scoreless for the final 31:12 of the game, Northern Arizona allowed another 17 points by San Diego, with the Toreros kicking a 27-yard field goal early in the third before Zach Nelson rushed in for a 1-yard touchdown and Dwelley scored his second fourth-down, play-action touchdown from 13 yards out.
Northern Arizona managed just 238 yards in the second half and finished with its lowest total since 232 against Montana State in 2013, along with 53 penalty yards by San Diego, and finished the game 2 of 13 on third down.
Finishing 22 of 41 for 178 yards with one touchdown and one interception, the yardage total ended up as Cookus’ lowest in a full game during his Northern Arizona career.
“They did a good job of knowing my launch point. Kind of digging in, and whether it is just getting a touch on me, things like that affecting the throw,” Cookus said. “We were able to move the pocket a little bit and win some of those one-on-one matchups, that kind of helped a little bit, but overall they did a very good job of keeping me in the pocket.”
PLAYING A FEW MEN DOWN
All-Big Sky safety Wes Sutton and starting nickelback Josh Clarke both missed the game on the defensive side, as did All-Big Sky receiver Elijah Marks and running back Joe Logan.
The loss of Marks left a trio of true freshmen and senior Burton on the outside, with Northern Arizona playing without its three projected starters from the preseason after early season injuries to Emmanuel Butler and William Morehand.
Cory Young filled in as the Lumberjacks primary running back, struggling to find space outside of a 37-yard run midway through the fourth quarter with Northern Arizona trailing by the final score of 41-10. As a team, Northern Arizona finished with 60 yards, less than the combined total of Cookus’ and Young’s longest runs of the day, a result of the 33 yards lost on four sacks.
Finishing the first half with four first-down carries for nine yards, Young finished the game with nine carries for 45 yards. True freshman Stokes ended up as Northern Arizona’s leading receiver with five receptions for 82 yards while fellow freshman Chancellor Brewington added five catches for 46 yards. At one point in the second half, Northern Arizona’s leading receiver stood as pass interference, with San Diego committing four for 60 yards.
THIRD DOWNS THE DIFFERENCE
Entering the game as the top third-down offense in the nation, San Diego continued its run of success against Northern Arizona. Converting 9 of 18 on third down, the Toreros finished the game with just one three-and-out of their 13 drives while possessing the ball for 38:03.
San Diego’s running backs found plenty of success on third down specifically, rushing for 69 yards on eight attempts leading to five first downs and a touchdown. Three of the conversions came on third-and-8 or longer, with runs of 11, 19 and 30 yards.
The success wasn’t limited to the ground, as Lawrence finished 7-of-9 passing on third down for 36 yards, converting three third downs while following up another with a touchdown pass on fourth-and-2.
Meanwhile, the Lumberjacks failed to convert on their first 11 third-down attempts, with the lone two coming on the game’s final meaningless drive as Cookus hit Burton for a first and ran for another himself.
“You can't underestimate anyone, we didn't bring the energy,” Cookus said. “I don't know what it was, including myself, across the board we didn't bring that energy and, like Coach said, we didn't feed off of each other.”
Finishing with five three-and-outs of its 13 total, Northern Arizona mustered just three drives of more than 50 yards, with the two scoring drives among the total. Another, a five-play, 67-yard drive ended on a third-and-4 run by Young, who fumbled the ball at the San Diego 3 on Northern Arizona’s only rush attempt of the third quarter.
A GAME OF WORSTS
The 31-point loss stands as Northern Arizona’s worst in Flagstaff since 2004’s 60-14 loss to Montana State and is the worst overall to an FCS team since a 2008 loss at Montana, 45-10.
While the yardage total was the worst since a 2013 loss at Montana State, the 10 points is the lowest against an FCS school since the Lumberjacks’ last home playoff loss, also in 2013, to South Dakota State 26-7.
The loss also dropped Northern Arizona to 1-6 in the FCS playoffs, with an 0-4 record now at home in the postseason. Along with the loss to South Dakota State, Saturday’s defeat joins the 48-25 loss to Florida Atlantic in 2003 and the 42-31 loss to Furman in 1996.
The Jacks hold a 10-11 record in November since the 2012 season, with a 43-26 overall record in the same time span. Removing six losses to FBS schools Arizona, Arizona State and San Diego State, more than 50 percent of Northern Arizona’s FCS losses in the past six seasons have come in the final month of the year.
“This was different than the others. The others were physically tired and we had a lot more injuries,” Souers said. “Frustrating? Yes, absolutely, but with the schedule, a lot of our tougher games end up being in November and they have. Those are games you have to get better every week and build to a crescendo that at the end of your season you are playing your best football. We were closer than that this year, but we are still not where we need to be.”