FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — There are playoff and league-title implications riding on Montana State’s Big Sky Conference matchup with Northern Arizona on Saturday at the Walkup Skydome. For NAU especially.
The Lumberjacks (6-3, 5-1 Big Sky) are one of three one-loss teams sitting atop the conference standings, along with Weber State and Southern Utah. They know they have to win in order to keep pace and challenge for year-end hardware in Jerome Souers 20th and final season as coach.
But the Bobcats have plenty to play for, too, and it isn’t just about momentum. Crazy as it seems, MSU is still mathematically eligible to capture a share of the Big Sky crown and win an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs, although the stars would have to align perfectly in the next two weeks for that to happen.
All of the following would need to occur: The Bobcats win their final two games, Weber State and Southern Utah lose both of theirs, and Eastern Washington and Sacramento State each drop one of their final two.
A longshot indeed, but a faint heartbeat is better than nothing.
Of course, the Bobcats’ mindset is to win Saturday and see where things stand entering their 117th meeting with Montana in Bozeman next week.
“We’ve got to focus on a really good football team and a tough environment,” MSU coach Jeff Choate said. “Defensively, we talked about it. It’s a huge challenge. This team is averaging almost (33) points a game. Very good football team, and that’s what we’ve got to focus on right now.”
It’s the same for NAU, which must go on the road to play Southern Utah next week. That game should carry a lot of league-title weight.
Here are storylines to watch as the Bobcats and Lumberjacks get set to tussle in the second-to-last week of the season:
Making a Case: Choate expects NAU quarterback Case Cookus to have extra motivation after he was disqualified on a targeting penalty early in last week’s 17-15 loss at Montana.
Cookus is one of the top quarterbacks in the conference, and his propensity to throw the ball down the field for chunk gains gives defenses fits. Cookus has thrown 19 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
“I think his arm talent is what separates him, just watching him compared to some of the other guys that we’ve played that are all very good in their own right,” Choate said. “But when you have the ability to make all the throws like he does, I think that opens up a lot of the offense.”
Explosive plays: One player to watch on NAU’s side is receiver Elijah Marks. In the absence of star wideout Emmanuel Butler, who suffered a season-ending injury in September, Marks is Cookus’ go-to guy. He averages 16.9 yards per catch.
“(Cookus) is a great player. He loves to throw the deep ball,” Bobcats cornerback Bryce Alley said. “Marks is explosive. He can make plays in the open.
“We just have to make them earn it. They’re not known for driving down the field, especially with (Marks). He’s their favorite target right now.”
Field position: The Bobcats have been consistently winning the field position battle thanks to an unsung hero, punter Jered Padmos.
Two weeks ago, Padmos pinned Idaho State inside its 20 yard line four times. Last week against Kennesaw State, he did it three more times.
Marks, for what it’s worth, is NAU’s primary punt returner.
Win one for the Gipper: It was announced in September that Souers would not be retained after two decades as NAU’s coach. The Lumberjacks have rallied in spite of that adversity to put themselves in position to win the conference crown.
This game will be Souers last regular-season home contest. Choate expects a big crowd and a hostile environment. Souers expects his team to perform the way it has throughout the season.
“Last Saturday (at Montana) was a missed opportunity,” Souers said. “We only get these one week at a time and there’s only two left. We want to get this right.
“I don’t feel any pressure, I feel a chip on the shoulder of most every kid in our locker room. They’re kind of angry about what has transpired, and they’re ready to channel that energy into a quality performance. I like us that way. Right on the edge.”
Ranked frenzy: Northern Arizona comes in at No. 24 in the STATS FCS poll, meaning this game is Montana State’s seventh against a ranked opponent this season.
In their six previous tries, the Bobcats went 1-5. They fell last week against No. 25 Kennesaw State by a 16-14 score.
Can MSU turn the tide this week?