BOZEMAN — When game-planning for Northern Arizona, a coach’s concern begins with the thought of defending Case Cookus, one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Sky Conference.
It’s Montana State’s turn this week to face the Lumberjacks, who are in a three-way tie for first place in the league standings. Naturally, Cookus was the first NAU player Bobcats coach Jeff Choate mentioned Monday.
“(He’s) a young man that I think has NFL arm talent,” Choate said during his weekly news conference. “Very, very good player. He’s very efficient, and they get a lot of explosive plays by throwing the ball down the field.”
“I think his arm talent is what separates him,” Choate said.
Beyond the physical attributes, Cookus will likely have extra motivation against the Bobcats based on what happened last week in a 17-15 loss at Montana.
During NAU’s second drive, Cookus was flagged for a personal foul when he peeled back to block near the sideline on a wide receiver reverse play and went helmet-to-helmet with Grizzlies linebacker James Banks.
After video review, the targeting call was confirmed and Cookus was disqualified for the remainder of the game.
Freshman Stone Smartt played quarterback the rest of the way, and NAU’s offense was limited to 322 yards, more than 120 yards (and 18 points) under its season averages. The loss snapped the Lumberjacks’ six-game winning streak and knocked them from their perch as the only unbeaten team in the Big Sky title race.
“I’m sure that they feel like if they had all the bullets in their gun that would have been a different result,” Choate said, alluding to Cookus’ exclusion from last week’s game.
“They’re going to have a sour taste in their mouth and they’re going to be excited to play on Saturday. We’ll head down to Flagstaff and see what we can do.”
Cookus, who was demonstrably upset, was perp walked (as it were) out of Washington-Grizzly Stadium to the jeers of a hostile crowd.
“I’m sure (he) is probably going to have a little extra in his tank after having to sit and watch last Saturday in Missoula," Choate said.
In some circles, the play and its unintended consequence reignited the discussion about the NCAA’s targeting rule and what it means for college football.
Choate took an opportunity to weigh in within the context of his team’s matchup this week against Cookus and NAU — and of his beliefs regarding the preservation of the game football, which has come under scrutiny in recent years over the effects of concussions and head trauma.
“What makes it hard for coaches and players is when things are interpreted a little bit differently — which they’re going to be — week to week based on the (officiating) crew, based on the situation, what the emphasis is, and I think it’s one of those rules that’s still evolving, if you will, and it’s going to take some time to standardize it,” Choate said.
“I think it’s a good rule. I do. You hate to see a young man lose an opportunity to compete in a game. I’ve seen the play that involved Case last week in Missoula, and you make the argument that hey, it might be the right call. But Tom Brady’s probably not getting kicked out of the game there. On a micro level, we’re talking about the same thing.
“So those are tough calls. You’ve got to credit the officials for standing by their call. They’re going to do what they feel like is right in that moment.”
Similarly, the Bobcats lost running back Nick LaSane to a disqualification early in their Oct. 21 victory at Northern Colorado. LaSane fumbled the ball and then was called for targeting in the chaos after the Bears recovered it and began racing the other way down the field.
But the ejection was an especially bitter pill to swallow for Choate and his coaching staff when it was later deemed by the officials that LaSane was down by contact before he fumbled. Still, the penalty stood.
A targeting foul can instantly change a game. Choate — who has served on an advisory board for Atavus, a Seattle-based consulting firm that champions shoulder-led, rugby-style tackling — said it comes down to being mindful of the rules, even in the heat of the moment.
“We do have replay, which can help get the call right, but they’re bang-bang plays for the most part, and I know that they are emphasizing it more,” Choate said. “We’ve had conversations with our players about being smart, and we have to be smart.
“We have to be smart around the quarterback, we have to be smart near the sideline, and we have to take the head out of the game for the preservation of the game. There’s some growing pains here, but I think that eventually we’ll get through this phase and everybody will understand that this is how the game needs to be played to preserve it and to maintain the integrity of the game.
“We can all have an opinion about was (Cookus’ ejection) the right call? Was it the wrong call? I think we’re just working through it right now, as coaches, as players and as officials.”