BOZEMAN — For all the edge-rushing prowess defensive end Bryce Sterk has shown through four games — his 8.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss lead the FCS — Montana State’s command in the trenches is the product of a collective effort.
Interior linemen Derek Marks, Chase Benson, Jason Scrempos and outside “Buck” defender Amandre Williams have all done their part to collapse the pocket and hunt ball carriers.
But the Bobcats’ defense faces a different kind of challenge this week against Northern Arizona quarterback Case Cookus, one of the smartest and most efficient passers in the Big Sky Conference.
The game, which is the Big Sky opener for both teams, 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.
The experienced Cookus, now in his fifth season at NAU, can beat you in a multitude of ways. If you play soft coverage he’ll pick you apart underneath, if you press his receivers on the outside he’ll burn you with the deep ball.
And if you haven't noticed from seasons past, he’s more than willing to throw long. Bobcats coach Jeff Choate provided an eyebrow-raising stat earlier this week, noting that Cookus and NAU have already taken 49 downfield shots through the air this year.
So far, Cookus is averaging a whopping 15.3 yards per completion. His 344.2 passing yards per game and 12 touchdowns both rank second in the Big Sky.
But his impact goes further than just numbers.
“He’s a great player,” said Marks, a senior from Belgrade. “I think a big thing that’s not seen in the stat book is just his leadership with the team and the passion that he plays with. You can see it on film even, just the fire that he plays with. He brings a lot of energy to their offense.
“But on the field in terms of his play, he can make all the throws. He reads defenses really well. He’s a problem, and he’s somebody that teams need to game plan for and focus on. I think he’s one of the best we’ll play against.”
Part of Montana State’s defensive strategy (as it is every week) is to contain the running game and be sound on first and second down in order to force Cookus into drop-back passing situations.
The Lumberjacks’ offense, coordinated for the second straight year by Aaron Pflugrad, has struggled to get its ground game untracked, and averages just 2.7 yards per carry and 92.2 yards per game despite having one of the Big Sky’s more versatile running backs in Joe Logan.
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Last week in a 40-27 road loss to ranked FCS opponent Illinois State, NAU had 25 net rushing yards as Cookus was sacked five times — though he still threw for 357 yards and four touchdowns, three of which went to Logan out of the backfield.
“A big part of it is stopping the run,” Marks said. “Early on in mixed downs they like to go quick-pass with their RPO (run-pass option), so we need to force them to have to drop back and pass and hopefully be able to get after him at that point.”
Marks said Cookus “is definitely a mature guy who’s played a lot of football. In terms of rattling him it’s going to take a lot. One thing coach Choate said is they’re always right there, they’re always competing because they take so many shots, because he can make all the throws.
“We’re just going to have to play tight coverage in the back end, get after them up front — and do all we can. I don’t know about rattling him mentally, but if we can get him off his spot, get him moving out of the pocket and hit him and hopefully put him on his back I think we’ll have some success.”
No change in Rovig
Cookus and NAU will enter Bobcat Stadium averaging 40 points per game, tops in the Big Sky Conference. So it stands to reason that Montana State will need to produce on offense, perhaps not unlike it did last week in a 56-21 victory over Norfolk State.
Tucker Rovig took over MSU’s starting quarterback job from Casey Bauman last week and thrived, completing 21 of 27 passes for 221 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. The Bobcats’ running game also produced a staggering 449 yards.
Rovig said he’s approaching this game the same as last week. One key, he said, is to not pay attention to what Cookus is doing on the field and focus more on his own task.
“I’m not competing against Case Cookus,” Rovig said. “I’m competing against NAU and their defense.”
“I’m still the same guy as last week,” Rovig added. “I’m just trying to prepare and make this week even better than last week in terms of preparation.”
The No. 7-ranked Bobcats come into the game with a 3-1 record. Northern Arizona is 2-2 under first-year coach Chris Ball. The Lumberjacks lead the all-time series 28-22 and have won three straight against MSU.