FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — After making national news, with outlets such as Deadspin, SB Nation and Yahoo Sports jumping aboard, Northern Arizona quarterback Case Cookus settled back into his weekly routine on Tuesday.
Prepping for Saturday’s meeting with Montana State, Northern Arizona’s final home game of the regular season, Cookus reflected on a strange weekend in Montana.
“I heard it was on SportsCenter and on a few different things. It is kind of weird, I always thought I would make national news for a different reason. But being the first quarterback with a targeting call, it is definitely a weird one and a story to tell,” the quarterback said.
Ejected for targeting midway through the first quarter against the Grizzlies, Cookus sat in the locker room for the remainder of the day, attempting to keep track of the game the only way possible.
“The toughest thing was we were watching on like a monitor-type thing. And you know the big screens at a game, where they play their replays only and things like that,” Cookus said. “So it was real frustrating to sit there, not really know what was going on, and not be able to be out there and help the team at all.”
With tight end Wallace Gonzalez running with the ball on a reverse, looking to pass downfield, Cookus led out in front. Finding no one open, Gonzalez tucked the ball and ran, prompting Cookus to turn around and look for a block.
Cookus hit linebacker James Banks as Gonzalez began to run out of bounds and the officiating crew immediately threw a flag. A video review confirmed the call on the field, and Cookus stormed off to the locker room amid applause from the Montana crowd.
“It was a broken play and I really was just trying to get in his way. I had no clue what was going to happen, I had no clue what was behind me,” Cookus said. “(James Banks) played the rest of the game and I hope he is fine. I definitely wasn't trying to target him, but I put myself in that situation.”
While the internet caught fire with the news that a quarterback had been ejected for targeting, the Lumberjacks struggled on the field without their All-American quarterback. Falling 17-15 to the Grizzlies, the Lumberjacks slipped to No. 24 in both the FCS Coaches Poll and STATS FCS Poll after entering last week in the teens.
Sending true freshman Stone Smartt into the madness of Missoula, with an attendance listed at 20,466, Northern Arizona had ups and downs in the passing game. The freshman struggled at times throwing but did drive Northern Arizona down the field for a potential tying score.
“That’s an awful lot to ask of anybody,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers. “Communication is difficult. The intensity, emotions and the adrenaline runs higher, so I think it affected a lot of us in that setting. I think the hardest part when you look back at it is there were a number of different areas that we could have overcome the two points. It wasn’t all on the offense.”
Smartt’s mobility helped lead to Northern Arizona’s decision to keep him in the game at quarterback, and he rushed for 94 yards on 12 carries. However, adding seven sacks into his totals, his rushing numbers fell to 43 yards.
While Cookus was unable to get clear looks at what the freshman quarterback was seeing from the Montana defense, he did try to help when the team entered the locker room at the break.
“I told him obviously keep your head up -- he is great athlete and he can do some special things. I told him the crowd is going to try to get after him and they are going to bring lots of different blitzes now, probably things that we hadn't seen on film,” Cookus said. “Me having that experience my freshman year, they are going to bring everything. I was just trying to get him to calm down, go back to his rules and tell him that he knows everything.”
While Northern Arizona suffered the ultimate consequence, losing the game and its chance at finishing the Big Sky season with a perfect record, Souers said he does hope the NCAA reviews the rule in the offseason as many college coaches have mentioned this season.
“The intent of the rule is absolutely necessary, I think we have all come to an agreement on that,” Souers said. “But the enforcement has a profound effect on the game. I don't think anybody wants to change the essence of football and I don’t think that's the intent, but it can.”
Cookus’ block, with his head, shoulder and arm appearing to come in contact with the upper body and head of Banks, with the NCAA rule addressing the issue but remaining up for interpretation of the official -- and general public, for that matter.
Souers said he does believe players are trying to adhere to the rule changes, with the most severe hits being penalized correctly and accurately.
“The ones that I think are most egregious are the intent ones where it is clearly obvious,” Souers said, with headshots on defenseless receivers over the middle of the field or players out of the play needing to be policed. “We are doing a better job of getting those out of the game, and I think that makes it safer. There’s more to learn, and part of the evolution of the game requires that we look at how the enforcement will evolve and that we get to where we are clearing out the negative intent.”