The Northern Arizona football team showed why its offense has the firepower to be one of the best in the Big Sky Conference last week in a 65-41 loss to the Arizona Wildcats.
Although much of the offensive production came after the Wildcats dominated the first half 51-13, the Lumberjacks' offense showed its strength in the passing game against mostly Arizona backups.
Case Cookus threw for 373 yards on 28-of-48 passing with two touchdowns and two interceptions, while connecting with nine different receivers. Brandon Porter and Hendrix Johnson hauled in the most catches for Northern Arizona with eight and seven respectively.
The two were Cookus’ favorite targets for the second straight week, with Porter getting 11 targets and Johnson 10. Through two games, the two lead Northern Arizona in targets with 20 for Porter and 17 for the freshman Johnson.
Porter finished with eight receptions for 79 yards, Johnson had seven for 97 -- including a 56-yard connection with Cookus -- and Stacy Chukwumezie had two catches for 67 yards.
"We finally settled down and got some confidence," Lumberjacks head coach Chris Ball said of the second half against Arizona. "I thought if we got some defensive stops in the first half it probably would have been a little closer. We didn't do a good job, we were jumping out of gaps and weren't executing."
Northern Arizona scored 28 points in the second half, all coming deep in Wildcat territory to cap off long drives -- something the offense struggled with in the first half.
The Lumberjacks weren’t able to get much of anything going in the first half, with only two drives that went for more than 60 yards.
The lone touchdown of the first half came off a 24-yard pass from Cookus to Chukwumezie. Cookus connected with Porter three times on the same drive to set up the strike to Chukwumezie.
So far the Northern Arizona ground game hasn’t produced much, however, leaving the offense to rely on their quarterback heavily.
Through two contests, the Lumberjacks are averaging just 78.5 rushing yards per game and gaining just 2.5 yards per run. The ground game has produced four touchdowns, with three coming in the second half against Arizona.
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Against the Wildcats, the Lumberjacks had five different running backs take handoffs, with redshirt freshman Jacob Mpungi leading the way at seven. Starter Joe Logan had just one carry, Aramis Aldredge had four carries, Nate Stinson -- who has battled injuries for his entire Lumberjack career -- had five and scored his first rushing TD of his career, and freshman back George Romero-Robinson had four carries.
Ball said the team will likely use a stable of backs in the future, much like they did against Arizona.
"I thought we ran it better in the second half against U of A. Mpungi came in and gave us a few good runs. ... I thought our offensive line played really well, especially in the second half," Ball said.
Northern Arizona has yet to register a takeaway this season through two games. It is pretty uncharacteristic for a defense that has been one of the best ball-hawking teams in the Big Sky as of late.
"We talked about it this morning, and we will keep talking about and keep emphasizing. Just got to get that first one," Ball said.
The Lumberjacks get what looks to be a breather against Division II Western New Mexico on Saturday.
Last time the two teams faced off in 2010, Northern Arizona shut out the Mustangs 48-0. The game was the debut of Lumberjacks all-time leading rusher Zach Bauman, who went for 170 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
Coincidentally, Bauman will be inducted into the Northern Arizona Athletics Hall of Fame at halftime of Saturday’s game against Western New Mexico -- which falls a little less than 10 years after Bauman’s college debut.
Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. in the Walkup Skydome.