Finding room to run has been an inconsistent journey for the Northern Arizona football team.
The Lumberjacks (2-1) are 79th in rushing yards per game at 117.9 per contest coming against a FCS, FBS and a Division II school. Take out the D-II game and the Lumberjacks drop to 157 total rushing yards -- or 78.5 yards per game. There has been inconsistency with the run game early on this season, and it's been a work in progress for the Lumberjacks to get the run game on track.
“It’s not horrible, just inconsistent," Lumberjacks head coach Chris Ball said Tuesday after practice. "We always got to be more consistent at it.”
Most of the lack of production on the ground just comes down to the Lumberjacks' scheme.
Quarterback Case Cookus has the freedom to read defenses and choose whether to throw or hand the ball off on run-pass options. So far this season, the option to pass over a handoff has simply been chosen more often than not.
"There’s a lot of opportunities that we’ve missed in the run game choosing to throw the ball," Bob Connelly, Lumberjacks offensive line coach and run game coordinator, said Tuesday. "There’s good opportunities throwing it where we get 6-8 yards; a lot of our perimeter run game is our RPO game.”
Running back Joe Logan, who came into the year as the top returning rusher, hasn't been able to find consistent production on the ground with just 51 rushing yards on 2 yards per attempt. But what he has been able to do is make massive plays as a pass catcher.
Twice last week against Western New Mexico in a 55-21 win, Logan caught swing passes from Cookus, quickly making the first few tackle attempts miss, then racing past for 65- and 63-yard touchdowns.
Those type of plays, Connelly said, are basically an extension of the Lumberjacks' ground game -- as the passes come just past the line of scrimmage while the offensive line is run blocking to set up the gap.
"We don’t get a credit for a lot of those," Connelly said. "But on a lot of those we are run blocking but we are throwing the football on the perimeter. If we have an opportunity to get an advantage with number count on the perimeter, we throw the ball to our running back or our slot receivers or outside receivers on screens.”
Even though the team has made it work so far, averaging the fourth-best scoring output in the FCS at 44.3 points per game, Connelly knows the run game needs to sure up when they do hand it off.
Especially in the red zone.
Against Western New Mexico, Northern Arizona settled for two field goals inside the 10 and turned the ball over on downs twice, failing to pound the ball in from close on a combined seven rushing attempts to four passes on the four possessions.
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“Last week my biggest disappointment was our goal-line, short-yardage situations," Connelly said. "We got to really amp it up in those scenarios. I’ll take blame for some of that."
Connelly said the issues down at the goal line were a mix of linemen and tight ends missing blocks and the running backs just missing the gaps. He added that the entire run game needs to come together in short-yardage scenarios.
If there was ever a time of the run game to come together for the Lumberjacks, this week is it. Northern Arizona travels to face Illinois State, ranked No. 10 in the FCS coaches poll and No. 15 in the STATS poll, on Saturday.
The Redbirds (2-1) boast the 17th-best rushing defense in the FCS in terms of yards allowed -- giving up 104.7 yards per game on 2.85 yards per attempt. Illinois State has yet to allow a rushing touchdown on the year while holding teams to 13.7 points per game -- good for eighth in the FCS.
"We got to run the football and do a better job of stopping the run," Ball said of this week's road game. "So, it’s not really about who we are playing, it’s about what we got to do as a football team to get better every day.”
On the flip side Illinois State averages 219 yards on the ground, led by a strong running back in James Robinson. Robinson has the most rushing yards at 340 net yards and 114 per game, while two others round out the attack in dual-threat QB Brady Davis with 145 net yards on 48.3 per game and Jeff Proctor with 143 net yards on 47.7 yards per game.
If the offense can't get the run game going, it always has Cookus.
Cookus is off to a fast start just over a year after breaking his collarbone, breaking in near the top of most major passing categories. Through three games this season Cookus is fifth in the FCS in passing yards at 1,020, eighth in passing TDs at eight and is third in yards per completion at 17.59 yards.
Cookus needs just 12 passing yards to break 9,000 for his career -- which would make him just the fourth player in program history to hit the mark.
Saturday's kickoff is set for 4:30 p.m. in Normal, Illinois.