By ERIC TABER for GoGriz.com
Northern Arizona scored on its first play of the game, a 74-yard pass play, and the Lumberjacks never looked back in posting a 45-34 victory over Montana Saturday at the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff.
The Lumberjacks (4-4, 3-2 BSC) led 28-20 at the half, then outscored the Grizzlies (5-2, 2-2 BSC) 17-0 in the third quarter to put Montana, which lost for the first time in four games, in a 25-point hole that was too much to overcome.
The Grizzlies outscored NAU 14-0 in the fourth quarter and outgained the Lumberjacks 162-5, but two onside kicks that could have given Montana extra possessions were unsuccessful.
Montana piled up 541 yards of offense, its fourth time this season with more than 500 yards and 136 more than Northern Arizona, but the Lumberjacks’ quick-strike offense set the tone early in the game.
Northern Arizona’s four first-half scoring drives all took 65 seconds or less and all were capped by Blake Kemp, NAU’s backup to Case Cookus, last year’s FCS STATS National Freshman of the Year, throwing scoring passes.
His fourth touchdown pass of the first half, three yards to Jack Thomas, came one play after Joe Logan rushed around the right side for 58 yards and made it 28-14.
Northern Arizona took the opening possession of the second half down the field and connected on a 40-yard field goal to extend its lead to 31-20.
Two miscues by Montana in a five-play sequence early in the third quarter largely sealed the Grizzlies’ fate.
Down 11 but with his team holding some momentum, Gustafson hit James Homan in the left flat on first down from the Grizzlies’ 37. NAU’s Jake Thomas was the second tackler to arrive, and he punched the ball loose. The Lumberjacks recovered.
Facing 4th-and-1 from the Montana 21 on its ensuing possession, a Northern Arizona back was gang-tackled for a loss, but the Grizzlies were offside. The penalty gave the Lumberjacks a first down, and they finished the drive with a touchdown to make it 38-20.
After Montana’s next possession ended on an incomplete pass on fourth down, the Lumberjacks went 44 yards in three plays to up their lead to 45-20.
The Grizzlies had a season-high 12 penalties that cost them 107 yards.
“Northern Arizona played very well. They coached their guys up and had them ready to play,” said coach Bob Stitt. “And we just continued to shoot ourselves in the foot. You play a good team like this, you can’t have the issues we had with turnovers and penalties.
“I felt like we had left that kind of play behind. Instead we came out here and played with a very undisciplined attitude. You don’t give yourselves a chance against a good team when you play that way. It makes it tough.”
Montana fell behind early in the game because it couldn’t convert its first-half opportunities. Much of that was due to a Northern Arizona defense that had Gustafson off-balance and out of sync for much of the game.
He threw for 394 yards and four touchdowns, but he was just 34 for 59 with an interception.
The Grizzlies drove into NAU territory on their first four possessions but had only a field goal and touchdown to show for it. The other two possessions ended with incomplete passes on fourth down when Gustafson was pressured.
Tim Semenza was good from 34 yards out on Montana’s second possession to make it 7-3, and Gustafson hit Justin Calhoun for a 47-yard touchdown on the first play of the second quarter. Homan ran in the two-point conversion to make it 14-11.
Northern Arizona used a short field following a Gustafson interception to go up 21-11 and Kemp’s fourth touchdown of the first half to build a 28-14 lead.
The Lumberjacks shredded Montana’s Big Sky-leading defense for 346 yards and 28 points in the first half alone. The Grizzlies had been allowing 305 yards and less than 21 points through their first six games.
“They did what (defensive coordinator Jason Semore) knew there were going to do, because that’s their offense. They’re going to throw the ball down the field, and we felt we could match up,” said Stitt.
“Right from the first play they came out and got after us in the secondary. They had a great plan. We actually knew what they were going to do and couldn’t stop them.”
Because of a missed extra point at the end of the second quarter, Montana found itself down four possessions instead of a more manageable three entering the fourth quarter. But the Grizzlies still made a spirited attempt to come back.
Montana went 96 yards in 15 plays to make it 45-27 on a Gustafson four-yard pass to Josh Horner. The ensuing onside kick went out of bounds, and Montana burned all three of its timeouts to get the ball back with 3:43 remaining.
Gustafson hit Homan for 58 yards to get the ball to the NAU 12, then hit Homan again from six yards out to make it 45-34.
Montana tried another onside kick with 2:27 remaining, but Northern Arizona recovered and ran out all but the final seven seconds off the clock.
“We felt like we made some decent adjustments, and we ended up moving the ball a little bit in the second quarter and fourth quarter, but we were always playing from behind today, and we can’t do that to our defense,” said Stitt.
Homan finished with nine catches for 133 yards, Calhoun made eight grabs, also covering 133 yards. Jeremy Calhoun rushed for a team-high 95 yards.
Montana will play at Eastern Washington (6-1, 4-0 BSC) next Saturday at 1:30 p.m. (MT) in Cheney. The Eagles won 41-17 at Montana State on Saturday.