Northern Arizona football (3-3, 1-1 Big Sky) enters the bye week coming off a much needed home win in the Walkup Skydome against Northern Colorado.
The offense clicked after a sluggish start, with Lumberjacks quarterback Case Cookus throwing for season highs of five touchdowns and 406 yards. And the defense, despite being down numerous rotation players, held its own for most of the game.
Injuries, departures and decisions to redshirt give the Northern Arizona defense a much different look than what was seen during fall camp.
Starting defensive lineman Jalen Goss left two weeks ago, starting inside linebacker Taylor Powell decided to redshirt the rest of the season this past week and UCLA grad-transfer Octavius Spencer, who practiced with first- and second-string defensive backs during fall, is no longer with the team due to academics. Expected rotation defensive backs Elijah Orr, Jamarri Jackson and Myles Dumas exited the program around fall camp.
Inside linebacker Tristen Vance has been sidelined with an injury since fall camp with no timetable to return, while defensive linemen Chauntez Thomas and Brandon Lawless saw their seasons cut short due to injury.
Outside linebacker Sherrod Paige, freshman lineman Mark Ho Ching and starting defensive backs Anthony Sweeney, Khalil Dorsey and Marcel Myers all missed the Northern Colorado game due to injuries.
Even during that game, Northern Arizona lost Nate Perkins, who started in place of Dorsey at corner, in the first quarter after he was ejected for targeting.
Former running back Jacob Mpungi played in place of Perkins, showing just how thin the Lumberjacks are getting at the spot. In total on Saturday Northern Arizona played 11 underclassmen on defense, with four of the top five in tackles for the Lumberjacks being underclassmen.
Northern Colorado quarterback Jacob Knipp threw for 411 yards, the second time an opposing quarterback has gone over 400 through the air against Northern Arizona this season. Knipp had thrown for just 802 yards entering Saturday’s game.
The good news for the Lumberjacks was they held the Bears to just 32 rushing yards -- the best mark of the year for the defense.
“We stopped the run, but we gave up too many yards through the air,” Northern Arizona defensive coordinator Jerry Partridge said Tuesday. “It’s difficult right now. Some of those kids trying to play two or three weeks ago weren’t in the mix. But the kids have done a nice job of stepping up and meeting the challenge and getting us through a tough period where we’re injured.”
Northern Arizona gets the bye week to nurse some of the non-season-ending injuries, but the team will be relying on some of its younger players as the season continues. Here's a look at some of the notables the Lumberjacks are working with across the defense.
Inside linebackers Harrison Beemiller and Brooklyn Hardiman have made plays all season at the spot.
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Hardiman, like many on the defense, didn’t have much practice time at inside linebacker heading into the season after he was converted over from safety -- getting his first reps in pads at inside backer in August. Beemiller, another converted safety, has impressed Partridge early on as one of the team’s top defensive players.
“Harrison Beemiller is a guy that has been a godsend,” Partridge said. “He’s a guy that came in here as a safety when he got here last fall. Moved him to inside backer about halfway through the spring, looked like he had some instincts and he’s been our best inside backer all fall.”
On the outside, Brandon Worthy has been one of the most consistent defenders with 30 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and one interception -- the only Lumberjack with both a sack and an interception.
Chris Jules, who was listed as a defensive end for part of the season, was moved to outside backer opposite of Worthy, where he has done well. He had four solo tackles and looked comfortable covering in space.
On the defensive line, Partridge said the team is making some adjustments, likely due in part to some of the injuries up front.
Outside linebacker Carson Taylor, who played defensive end last season primarily, is moving to defensive end after a rough start to the season at outside backer. Although he started the season with six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, the move made sense from a scheme and talent perspective, Partridge said.
“Space just wasn’t his deal,” Partridge said of Taylor at outside linebacker. “We need to send him all the time and when you send a 3-4 outside backer all the time it makes it a four-man front. Put him there and let him do what he does, I think he’ll eat it up.”
The rest of the line is still relatively intact, with Jonathan Lolohea and Aaron Andrews still in the mix. Adding Taylor to the group gives the team added depth it lost with the injuries to Lawless and Thomas, along with the departure of Goss.
In the defensive backfield, two of the four players that saw most of the snaps against the Bears had only one start between them. Safety Jalen Cook and corner Brian Barry were the only two of the group who started four games on the year.
It is unclear how long Dorsey, Myers and Sweeney will be out, leaving the Lumberjacks with some retooling to do in the backfield.
After the bye week Northern Arizona will get Weber State on the road in Ogden, Utah.