Northern Arizona football has had an up-and-down season so far and now that it's about halfway complete, turnovers are taking the brunt of the attention on offense.
With an even record at 3-3 overall and a 2-1 Big Sky Conference mark, the Lumberjacks enter this week's bye with ball protection as one of the top priorities for a good reason.
The offense has committed 19 turnovers through six games, six coming last week against Weber State in a win. Northern Arizona has lost 11 fumbles, the worst in the FCS, and its quarterbacks have been picked off eight times, six by Daniel Bridge-Gadd and two by Case Cookus.
“We’ve been spending a lot of time on ball security in various scenarios,” Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers said. “There comes a time when you can almost spend too much time on it because that’s all they’re thinking about in a negative sense.”
“You just gotta play the game and play it the right way,” he added.
Bridge-Gadd is credited with 12 turnovers in his four complete games played, leading to an average of three turnovers a game for the first-time starter.
Although he has had some issues with ball control, Souers and offensive coordinator Aaron Pflugrad said they are still confident in Bridge-Gadd as their starting quarterback with Cookus out with an injury. But Souers did acknowledge how the team needs to take its time with Bridge-Gadd because of his limited experience as a starter.
“There’s times he is looking sharp and there’s times he struggles,” Souers said. “We are trying to be patient and keep progressing with his game. I believe in the kid. He is really close in so many ways.”
Many of Bridge-Gadd’s turnovers are results of bad snaps or mishandled run-pass options, and Souers explained that those type of turnovers are because there are still timing issues that need to be corrected.
Souers attributed the timing problem to the fact that Bridge-Gadd is fresh to the Northern Arizona system and that the system itself is rather new.
Besides Bridge-Gadd, several Lumberjacks have had issues with ball control. Justis Stokes has multiple muffed punts, some he has recovered and some he hasn’t. Joe Logan, Emmanuel Butler and Brandon Porter have all been credited with lost fumbles.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whose fault it is or who it is on; we gotta get it cleaned up,” Plfugrad added.
Pflugrad, however, took ownership of having to find a way to alleviate the issues on offense. Following Wednesday's practice Pflugrad had players running the length of the field, ball in hand, in an effort to send a message about turnovers.
“If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right,” Pflugrad said. “So that’s our main focus going forward as it has been this entire season so far. But that’s 100 percent on me to get it cleaned up, and if we do we have a chance to do some special things as an offense and as a football team going forward.”
The defense has done as much as it can to soften the turnovers blow, registering 19 takeaways this season to help the Lumberjacks break even in the turnover-to-takeaway ratio.
Northern Arizona leads the FCS with 13 interceptions this season behind three from Kahlil Dorsey and Kam'ron Johnson and two from Wes Sutton. Eight different Lumberjack defenders have been credited with at least one interception this season.
Souers provided an update on the Lumberjacks' injured quarterback on Wednesday, saying that the most recent evaluation on Cookus’ injury did not come back as positive as the team had hoped.
Cookus started rehab this week and was not wearing a sling at practice Wednesday, but Souers said the quarterback is still out indefinitely.
With just five games left in the regular season, it still remains unclear if Cookus will be able to play again this season.
The coaching staff has not addressed who would be the starter if Cookus returns from injury.