Family Weekend hits Lumberjack country as NAU hosts Montana State for the second Big Sky game of the season for the 2-2 Lumberjacks. They will look to get themselves above .500 against a strong and aggressive Bobcats team that is coming off a strong showing against the Cal Poly Mustangs as they bring themselves to Flagstaff sporting a 2 – 1 record. The Bobcats are returning to Flagstaff for the first time in five years, so the readjustment to the elevation there may be a key issue for the team. Elements aside, there are key factors to watch for those watching this Big Sky battle Saturday
Limiting Prukop a Must
Maybe one of the more impressive players in the Big Sky raising eyebrows and generating chatter is Dakota Prukop. The quarterback for the Bobcats is second in the Big Sky in passing averages per game with already 949 yards in just three games and the fewest interceptions in the conference with a single pick coming against Eastern Washington two weeks ago. Though the Bobcats are not going to stress over the one turnover versus the nine touchdowns the man under center has provided. Add onto that, somehow the signal caller has rushed for the second most yards in the Big Sky with 301 yards and two touchdowns as well, garnering comparison to former Eastern Washington great Vernon Adams who transferred to Oregon earlier this year. Stopping a talent like Prukop is a tall order for even seasoned defenses in the FCS, so the Jacks may have to do their best at limiting the looks they can give the quarterback and provide pressure against him. That could lean towards the Jacks favor as they are third best in the conference at getting to the quarterback with already 11 sacks on the year.
Keeping Cookus Clean
While their defense can get after a quarterback, it seems like the Jacks cannot keep grass stains off of Case Cookus’ jersey. The freshman has put himself in contention for one of the better quarterbacks in the Big Sky with his fourth overall ranking in passing average a game and second in efficiency only to Jordan West in Eastern Washington. Lumberjack fans can only imagine what those numbers could actually look like if Cookus was given more time to let plays develop without pressure in his face or if his wide receivers could get separation quicker in their routes. Sacks usually take both those issues into account but whichever provides the biggest problem needs to be sorted. The freshman phenom can only take so much punishment. Already sacked 14 times in just four games, Cookus is looking at potentially getting sacked around 39 times by seasons end if the bleeding doesn’t stop. Receivers other than Emmanuel Butler need to show up and the line must have better communication to identify the Mike linebacker and find blitzers coming from the edge. If Cookus stays upright, he can look to add to his eight touchdown passes this year.
Bending and Breaking Too Much
The last stand for a defense is within the last twenty yards. The red zone. Where defenses become the walls that stop the oncoming tide of the hungry offense. The Jacks have not shown signs of being a stout defense in those last twenty yards of real estate. Of the 16 times that an opponent has entered, 16 times the opponent has scored. With 12 touchdowns, there is no argument that they are cheap scores either. They’ve not produced turnovers, they have not produced stops. In fact, they’ve been beaten at the point of attack more often than not as 7 of the 12 touchdowns have come from the ground game. The Lumberjacks are the only team in the Big Sky to not produce a single stop in the red zone in the entire conference. At some point you have to feel like the defense is due, but with Prukop and fifth leading rusher in the Big Sky Chad Newell it is going to be a tall order to stop this offense in the red zone. They’ll need to get stops early in drives and keep the Bobcats on their side of the field as long as they can. If it comes down to one stop to seal the game, perhaps the biggest challenge will be if this defense is confident enough to believe they can get that stop.
The Lumberjacks and the Bobcats will kick off at 4 PM October the 3rd in Flagstaff. This will be a long awaited return for the Skydome for NAU since their week two win against New Mexico Highlands, their last win on the season. With Family Weekend taking place, the Jacks hope that home cooking is just what the doctor ordered for their resurgence.