Bobcats face explosive NAU offense in Flagstaff

BOZEMAN — An explosive offense led by an efficient dual-threat quarterback and a rugged running back? An evolving defense not afraid to adapt to its opponent?

Those lines could describe either team in Saturday’s showdown between Montana State and Northern Arizona in Flagstaff’s Walkup Skydome. Game notes

“They have a very good football team,” Bobcat coach Rob Ash said. “They played a very good football game (at Montana last Saturday) in a tough environment. They’ll be all anyone can handle in our conference.”

Northern Arizona dropped a narrow 23-14 decision Saturday, but still managed to impress in all areas. Star receiver Emmanuel Butler caught a pair of touchdown passes and accounted for 126 receiving yards, quarterback Case Cookus threw for 187 yards, and Casey Jahn rambled for 87 yards on the ground. Cornerback Marcus Alford, an All-America candidate, intercepted one pass and broke up three others.

The Lumberjack defense, says Bobcat quarterback Dakota Prukop, relies on pressure principles while presenting a moving target. “They’ve kind of changed their game plan from week to week,” he said. “They play a lot of man coverage. I don’t know what they’re going to do, they jump into a number of things.”

NAU’s ability to stop teams generally starts with utilizing Alford’s ability to lock down one side of the field. The 5-10 senior has two interceptions and five pass breakups. “He’s a good player,” Prukop said, “but we have really good players on offense. I don’t think you avoid him, but if you’re going to keep your eye on someone he’s the one you keep your eye on.”

Offensively the Lumberjacks thrive on balance, spreading the field while establishing the run. But when it’s scoring time, the 6-3 Butler is the target. He has caught 18 of the team’s 64 completed passes this year, accounts for 515 of NAU’s 1,086 passing yards, and has scored eight of the dozen Lumberjack touchdowns.

MSU defensive coordinator Kane Ioane likes NAU’s balanced, quick-strike approach. “Northern Arizona’s a very good, talented offense skill set-wise, running backs, receivers. They’ve got a receiver who’s already got seven touchdowns on the season, he does a very good job attacking the ball in the air. The running back runs very hard, has got the ability to take it the distance any given pay, and their quarterback’s doing a great job, young guy, but the ball comes off his hand very well and he’s been able to find his main targets when he needs to. They are a big-play offense, they’ve shown the ability to score quickly.”

Ioane said MSU will take the battle to the Lumberjacks where it needs to be fought. “We’ve got to be great on the outside as far as going and attacking the football in the air,” he said. “We’ve got to see it in practice, we’ve got to do it in practice, and that creates habits to where on game day that’s what we do. We attack the football in the air, so he’s not going over the top of us, he’s going through us to go and get the football.”

Senior cornerback Bryson Keeton has led MSU’s aerial defense this season. He was among the FCS leaders with 1.2 passes defended per game a season ago, and broke up three of Cal Poly’s 15 pass attempts last week.

Montana State offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey said he sees something familiar when evaluating NAU’s attacking defense. “They’re an aggressive defense that likes to set the tone of the game and set the tempo of the game,” he said. “They have the same philosophy on defense that we have on offense, so it’s going to be a good battle. They’re fast where they need to be fast, they’re physical where they need to be physical, and they don’t back down.”

An athletic front seven and brilliance in the secondary, Cramsey said, allows the Lumberjacks to be unpredictable. “They’re going to play their man coverage, they’re going to bring pressure, they’re going to blitz when they should be sitting back in coverage and sit back in coverage when they should be blitzing. It’s going to be a good battle between us and them.”

Saturday’s game showcases two of the league’s top quarterbacks, and two of its top running backs. Prukop stands as one of the most versatile weapons in the FCS. He leads the Big Sky Conference in total offense with 416.7 yards per game,  but while he throws for 316.7 an outing he also gains 100.3 yards a game on the ground. He said his ability to evolve and adapt as a quarterback stems “just from game experience, really.” Cookus, a freshman, is fourth in the league in total offense (242.0 per game).

Bobcat junior Chad Newell averages 83.3 yards a game rushing this season, but he has scored six touchdowns in six straight games and averages 97.6 yards against his last five Division I opponents. Northern Arizona’s Casey Jahn, a senior, gains 97.7 yards a game on the ground this season.

Saturday’s game marks MSU’s third game against league rival Northern Arizona in the last five seasons, and its first visit to Flagstaff’s Walkup Skydome since 2010. That gives the game an unfamiliar feeling, Ash said. “It’s an important conference game, of course, but none of our players and only about half our coaching staff have played there before. We’ll visit the stadium Friday afternoon to get familiar with the venue.”

Saturday’s game kicks off at 5:05 p.m. MDT, 4:05 p.m. local time in Flagstaff, and airs across Montana on Cowles Media stations. It also airs on Fox Sports Arizona PLUS (Dish 454 SD, DirecTV 686-1). Fox Sports Arizona replays the game on Saturday at 9 p.m. and Monday, Oct. 5, at 12 noon.

— MSU Sports Information

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