Just three weeks ago it would have been hard to believe Northern Arizona‘s football team would be celebrating Saturday’s 45-34 upset of No. 10 Montana.
The Lumberjacks lost four of their first five games and were inexplicably falling well short of preseason expectations. They were ranked No. 18 in the FCS preseason polls and had been favored to win their conference this year.
They got spanked in their season opener against Arizona State, 44-13. Nothing unexpected there. The ‘Jacks, a lower-division D-I team that plays in the Big Sky Conference, is 8-50 all-time against FBS opponents and haven’t beaten ASU since a 19-13 victory was recorded in 1938.
But then they lost three of their next four games, with their only win a 73-3 blow-out of New Mexico Highlands, a Division II program. They started conference play 0-2 after losses to Eastern Washington and Northern Colorado.
To make matters worse, NAU lost more than just the game against Eastern Washington. The team also lost its starting quarterback, Case Cookus, when a shoulder injury sent him to the sidelines in the fourth quarter.
Cookus, who set a FCS freshman single-season record last year of 37 touchdown passes and was named the STATS FCS Freshman of the Year, has been under center since the first game of the 2015 season. In the four games he played this season, he had already piled up 1,173 passing yards and 13 touchdowns; his passing efficiency rating was 184.4.
But as it turns out, the team may have found a star waiting in the wings. Blake Kemp replaced the injured Cookus in that Eastern Washington game and added the final touchdown before falling to the No. 4-ranked Eagles, 50-35, in the Jacks’ Big Sky opener.
The senior, a graduate of Chandler’s Hamilton High School, is a transfer from East Carolina University where he threw for 2,658 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. He also gained valuable playing experience before that at Mesa Community College, where he led that program to a couple of bowl appearances.
His debut for the Lumberjacks kept him under the radar awhile longer. He was in the Eastern Washington game just long enough to complete 9-of-11 pass attempts for 77 yards, an interception, and a TD pass. Nothing for the highlight reels.
But after his next game, against Northern Colorado, he was on every team’s radar. In his first NAU start, Kemp completed his first 12 passes and went on to finish 35-of-46 for 273 passing yards.
The ‘Jacks lost that game, 21-18, but it set the table for Kemp to turn the next three games into wins. They beat Montana State, 20-14, and Idaho State, 52-7, in the NAU homecoming game to run their record to 4-4 overall and 3-2 in conference.
And the win Saturday over Montana showed the explosiveness this offense can muster in the big games. It took NAU just 10 seconds to score on its first drive of the game when Kemp hit sophomore wide receiver William Morehand for a 73-yard touchdown pass.
When Montana came back with a field goal on the next possession, the ‘Jacks once again responded by scoring 70 seconds later when Kemp connected with senior wide receiver Delshawn McClellon to take an early 14-3 lead they would extend to 28-20 by halftime.
NAU continued to pour it on as the second half opened, scoring on three consecutive drives in the third quarter, fueled in large part by back-to-back scores by junior running back Corbin Jountti.
The high-profile victory was also a big win for head coach Jerome Souers, who is in his 19th season directing the Lumberjack program. The Montana upset was his 111th win, which ties the Big Sky all-time coaching record.
Souers will likely continue moving forward, looking for his tie-breaking win, without his All-American quarterback. He hasn’t ruled out the return of Case Cookus this season, but has said it could be a long recovery period.
That’s just one more reason Souers welcomes a bye week before hitting the road again to take on Weber State on Nov. 5.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)