Northern Arizona football wants a bit of revenge in Thursday’s season opener against Missouri State in the Walkup Skydome after the last showing against the Bears went haywire.
The Lumberjacks were routed by the Bears, 40-8, on the road in Springfield, Missouri. It was Northern Arizona's first full game without quarterback Case Cookus, who suffered his season-ending injury in the game prior against Eastern Washington.
The Lumberjacks offense struggled to keep control of the ball in the first meeting, committing six turnovers in the loss. Meanwhile, the defense allowed 297 yards on the ground to go with four rushing touchdowns.
Missouri State quarterback Peyton Huslig rushed for 61 yards, but later finished the season rushing for just 14 total yards in his team’s final five games. Missouri State was led by running back Jason Randall, who went for 182 yards against Northern Arizona. But he graduated, leaving a bit of inexperience at the spot for the Bears.
With Northern Arizona’s offense looking near full-strength with Cookus back -- aside from some questions at wide receiver -- the new-look defense will need to show its growth in the new scheme in first-year head coach Chris Ball’s opening game with the school.
“We're looking for everybody to do their part,” Lumberjacks defensive lineman Aaron Andrews said. “If one guy doesn’t do part of the 1-11 out of the gate, that’s how Missouri State got big on us last year. So we want to keep that turnover margin big -- I think we forced five turnovers last year -- but we gotta keep on doing our job on a consistent basis. We’re stressing consistency right now, so everyone needs to do their 1-11.”
Stopping Huslig will play a massive role in Thursday’s game, as the Bears QB showed major inconsistency in his game last season.
Missouri State started last season 4-2 behind Huslig, who during that stretch went 98-for-177 passing for 1,213 yards, and tallied seven TDs and as many interceptions while accounting for 352 rushing yards and five scores on the ground. But Huslig’s production dipped and Missouri State lost each of its final five games as the Bears QB went 67-for-145 passing with nine interceptions and just 900 passing yards and six touchdowns through the air.
What it comes down to, Ball said, is for his Lumberjacks simply to do their job.
“We got to worry about ourselves and get better,” he said. “We just got to get better with the little things and continue to grow as a football team.
“We just got to worry about ourselves,” Ball added. “Everybody’s got a responsibility to do and a job to do, and everybody needs to do their job. If you don’t do your job there’s a chance for a big play. The greatest thing about this game is the ball will find you. If you’re doing your job, you’ll make plays. If you’re not doing your job, we’ll get gashed."
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DIFFERENT ON OFFENSE
Northern Arizona’s offense will look completely different this time around against Missouri State.
The obvious reason is that Cookus is back.
With the QB ready to go, the Lumberjacks will get a chance to take advantage of a weak defensive backfield that allowed more than 250 passing yards per game last season. It will be Cookus’ first game in nearly a year after breaking his collarbone in 2018.
It helps that his first game back is in the Walkup Skydome.
In 15 career games in the Walkup Skydome, including two that were cut short due to injury, Cookus is 318-of-512 passing (62.1%) for 4,287 yards, 47 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. He has tossed for 8.3 yards per attempt in those 15 games.
Northern Arizona's offense should be able to exploit one of the worst defenses in the FCS from last season. In 2018, Missouri State ranked near the bottom of both passing and rushing yards allowed per game.
Northern Arizona will be breaking in a new wide receiver group that will likely feature Brandon Porter, Stacy Chukwumezie and freshman Hendrix Johnson near the top of the depth chart.
Northern Arizona players will wear patches of Malik Noshi’s No. 65 on their helmets for the entire season. There will also be a moment of silence before the start of Thursday’s game.
Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.