NAU hosts San Diego in battle of high-powered offenses

Perhaps no playoff team experienced more highs and lows over the season than Northern Arizona. The program welcomed back one player from the STATS FCS Walter Payton Award Watch List before losing another, then parted ways with its coach only to bring him back this week.

For San Diego, the biggest obstacle it faced this season was if it could again run the table in the Pioneer League — and it did.

When the Toreros, who haven’t lost in more than two months, visit the 25th-ranked Lumberjacks in Saturday’s first round, two of the FCS’ most prolific offenses led by STATS Walter Payton Award finalists at quarterback will share the same field.

Two months ago, it didn’t look like Northern Arizona (7-4, 6-2 Big Sky) would be part of the playoff field. It opened with substantial optimism with 2015 STATS Jerry Rice Award winner Case Cookus returning after missing a majority of the 2016 season with a collarbone injury, but then All-American wide receiver Emmanuel Butler was lost to season-ending shoulder surgery. After an 0-2 start, it was announced Jerome Souers, the winningest football coach in Big Sky history, would not come back after the season. Following that decision, however, the Lumberjacks reeled off six consecutive victories and went into the regular-season finale with a chance to win a share of the conference crown.

NAU fell short of a conference title, losing 48-20 at Southern Utah last Saturday, but the next day earned its first playoff bid since 2013 and on Monday announced Souers would return for a 21st season.

“I am elated for all members of the program who fought through an 0-2 start and the adversity our program faced this season to keep focus, come back, compete and earn this opportunity,” Souers said. “It is tough being a bubble team. We play in a strong conference with a lot of good teams that were very deserving. The selection committee has a truly difficult job. I am glad they rewarded us for our difficult schedule and we are excited to have the opportunity to move forward in the postseason.”

Led by Cookus, a unanimous All-Big Sky first-team selection, Souers’ offense is one of the most dangerous in the FCS. It will countered by another explosive unit.

Averaging 39 points, San Diego (9-2, 8-0 Pioneer League) is tied for second in the subdivision in scoring and stretched its conference win streak to 21 consecutive games with last Saturday’s 35-7 victory over Marist. The Toreros have won four straight PFL titles and six of the last seven.

“We’re really excited about winning the PFL and keeping the momentum going into the playoffs,” defensive end Jonathan Petersen said. “Obviously, making the playoffs is no easy feat, so we’re looking forward to keep the 8-0 record we had in the conference into the playoffs like we did last year.”

A year ago, San Diego visited Big Sky member Cal Poly in the first round, and came away with a 35-21 victory before losing to North Dakota State in the next round. The winner of this matchup — the first between programs since playing to a 14-all tie in 1960 — gets the second-seeded Bison.

Third-year starting quarterback Anthony Lawrence, who finished fifth behind Cookus for top freshman honors in 2015, is the guiding force behind San Diego’s high-powered offense.

Playing behind a line that has allowed six sacks all season — second-fewest in the FCS — Lawrence’s 30 touchdown passes trail only Sam Houston’s Jeremiah Briscoe. Amazingly, he only has two interceptions — and one came on a Hail Mary attempt. His 67.3 completion percentage ranks fourth and his 2,796 passing yards come in at 14th – three spots behind his NAU counterpart.

Cookus hardly missed a beat following an injury-shortened 2016 season after his sensational 2015, throwing for 3,235 yards, 21 TDs and five interceptions — with only two picks coming in the final nine games.

Elijah Marks stepped up in Butler’s absence, ranking second in the conference in yards (1,170) and third in receptions (71) to earn first-team All-Big Sky honors.

The Lumberjacks average 32.1 points but they haven’t had to go up against a team as talented as San Diego. The Toreros are 10th in the FCS in scoring defense, allowing 16.3 points per game, and are anchored by Petersen, a STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award finalist. The senior leads the FCS with 13 sacks and 20 tackles for loss and his five forced fumbles are tied for the second most.

NAU allowed an average of 18.7 points over a seven-game stretch, but was then torched for 84 points and 897 yards in its last two games.

The Lumberjacks, though, have the advantage of playing at Walkup Skydome, where they’re averaging 40.8 points during a five-game winning streak and have won 17 of 21 since 2014.

“We have to get ourselves ready,” San Diego coach Dale Lindsey said. “We can’t worry about Northern Arizona or the game. We have to be prepared to play.”