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FCS Game of the Week Preview: No. 23 Northern Arizona at No. 18 Southern Utah

The winner of this game will claim at least a share of the Big Sky title

NCAA Football: Northern Arizona at Arizona Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Game Time: Saturday, November 18, 2017, 4:30 p.m. ET

Location: Eccles Coliseum, Cedar City, Utah

Where To Watch: Eleven Sports

Betting Odds: Southern Utah -5.5, O/U 61.5

Odds via sportsbooks monitored by GamblersPalace.com


At least a share of the Big Sky title will be up for grabs on Saturday afternoon when the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks head north to take on the Southern Utah Thunderbirds.

For Southern Utah, this is a chance to improve its seeding in the FCS playoffs next week. The Thunderbirds have an outside shot at getting one of the automatic byes if they can pull off the victory here. They were able to beat Weber State earlier in the season and that would give them a leg up in the eyes of the committee.

It’s pretty much win or go home for Northern Arizona. The Lumberjacks’ playoff chances took a big hit a couple weeks back when they lost to Montana. Northern Arizona would likely not get in over Montana unless it can pull off the upset here.

Reasons to Like Northern Arizona

Case Cookus is one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Cookus has a big arm and has been the catalyst for the Lumberjacks’ offense this season. His return to form after a shoulder injury sidelined him for most of 2016 has helped boost this school’s fortunes. Cookus has thrown for over 300 yards in six of Northern Arizona’s games this season and will look to pass the Lumberjacks back to the postseason.

The Lumberjacks also boast one of the best receivers at the FCS level in Elijah Marks. Marks is Cookus’ primary target and has gone off for 100 receiving yards in every Big Sky game but the loss to Montana. In that game Cookus was ejected on the opening drive for a helmet to helmet hit when he tried to deliver a block.

Reasons Not to Like Northern Arizona

Like many of the teams in the Big Sky, the Lumberjacks struggle on defense. However, unlike most of the teams in the conference, it’s stopping the run that gives Northern Arizona the most trouble.

The Lumberjacks are allowing opponents to run for 4.9 yards per carry this season. That puts them outside the Top 100 in terms of rushing defense and means that Cookus has to be on his game or otherwise this team will lose.

Additionally, Northern Arizona is 1-3 against teams with winning records this season with the lone win coming against an Illinois State team that will likely finish the season 6-5.

Reasons to Like Southern Utah

The Thunderbirds have a solid quarterback of their own in Patrick Tyler. Tyler has been good for much of the season and has been an effective runner to boot. He has been able to create for this offense and led them to victories over Northern Iowa, Weber State, and Eastern Washington. His value to this team was demonstrated when he wasn’t able to play against Sacramento State and Southern Utah got blitzed.

This team can do just enough on the ground too. James Felila and Jay Green have combined to find the end zone 18 times this season. They are very good at getting tough yards near the goal line.

Reasons Not to Like Southern Utah

As much as I like Tyler, he is a little too careless with the ball at times. He has thrown 11 interceptions this season and thrown at least one pick in eight of his 10 starts. That could prove costly against a team like Northern Arizona.

The other part of the matchup that is scary for the Thunderbirds is Cookus against this secondary. Southern Utah has given up over 2,600 yards through the air this season and that puts them right with Montana. However, the yards per attempt numbers are much more reasonable as you must figure in that these teams play in a pass happy conference.

Prediction

Southern Utah has one of the most underrated home field advantages in the FCS. Cedar City should be rocking on Saturday afternoon and that will help the Thunderbirds pull through and claim the Big Sky.

Final Score: Southern Utah 34, Northern Arizona 27