BOZEMAN — It’s the start of Big Sky Conference play, and Montana State coach Jeff Choate was adamant this week that his team approach Saturday’s home game against Northern Arizona with renewed focus and intensity — and with its attention squarely on the task ahead.
The Bobcats, now ranked No. 7 in the STATS Top 25 FCS poll, went 3-1 in the nonconference portion of their season, a best-case scenario based on the difficulty of the schedule so far.
“I’m not even talking about what happened in nonconference play,” Choate said. “Couldn’t care less about what just happened over the last four weeks. This is all about Northern Arizona University.”
The game is scheduled to kick off Saturday at 1 p.m., and will be broadcast statewide on ABC/FOX Montana and on SWX in the Billings area.
Montana State’s defense must contend with NAU senior quarterback Case Cookus, one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Sky. Cookus loves to throw long — Choate said Cookus “throws a beautiful deep ball” — and his 344.2 passing yards per game rank second in the conference.
The Lumberjacks (2-2) are guided by first-year coach Chris Ball, who was most recently the defensive coordinator at Memphis and Arizona State.
Ball, ironically, was a candidate for the Bobcats’ head coaching job after Rob Ash was let go in 2015. Choate said he and Ball have known each other well for years, and even went so far as to compare notes during MSU’s hiring process, which eventually went Choate’s way.
Ball and defensive coordinator Jerry Partridge are the brains behind an NAU defense that boasts an active defensive front and one of the best cornerbacks in the league in Khalil Dorsey.
Offensively, everything runs through Cookus, who has NAU’s offense averaging 40 points per game. MSU’s offense, in turn, knows it must counterpunch. Last week the Cats rushed for 449 yards and scored eight total touchdowns.
“They’re a super-explosive offense,” Bobcats receiver Kevin Kassis said. “(Cookus) has been there for a while, so he knows what he’s doing. We’re just excited to go out there. I think we can put some points up.”
You have free articles remaining.
“It’s going to be a challenge for sure,” Choate said. “We’re going to have to score some points, because they are.”
In terms of the focus level rising as Big Sky play gets underway, MSU’s players say it’s not an issue.
“We can feel it at practice. Everything is definitely stepping up a gear,” linebacker Michael Jobman said. “We’re definitely excited for this challenge.”
“This is where it all counts,” Kassis said. “Especially with us wanting to obviously be Big Sky champs. We’re just excited to get into conference play because this is where it all starts, and we’re excited to see how it goes on Saturday.”
Spotlight on: Joe Logan
NAU running back Joe Logan, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound senior from Buckeye, Arizona, has feasted on the Bobcats in the past, and he will be a focal point for MSU’s defense on Saturday.
In two career games versus Montana State, Logan has rushed for 289 yards and four touchdowns with an average of 7.2 yards per carry. His 65-yard touchdown run in the second quarter of a game at Bobcat Stadium in 2016 proved crucial in a 20-14 NAU win, and his 75-yard second-quarter TD scamper was equally important in a 37-36 victory over MSU in 2017 at the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Logan and the NAU running game has gotten off to a slow start this season, averaging just 92.2 yards per game. Logan has seven career 100-yard rushing games, but is still looking for his first this year.
Still, Logan’s versatility — his five touchdown catches out of the backfield lead the team — is something the Bobcats are wary of.
“His numbers in the run game don’t reflect how important he is to this offense. They use him a ton in the pass game. He’s a threat every time he touches the ball,” said Choate, who is 0-2 against the Lumberjacks. “He’s a guy that has had some big days against us since I’ve been here, and we’ve got to always be aware of him.”
“The big part of their offense goes between Case Cookus and (Logan),” Jobman said. “We’re going to be keyed into what he’s doing out there during the game.”