Cookus, No. 19 Lumberjacks face No. 18 Western Illinois

NAU quarterback Case Cookus completed 23 of 33 passes for 369 yards last week against ASU.

Casey Sapio/Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Northern Arizona hung with Arizona State for over a half in its opener, but the FBS opponent proved to be too strong, wearing down the smaller school to hand their in-state foe a tough loss.

The No. 19 Lumberjacks return to the FCS ranks but their road doesn’t get any easier with a trip to Western Illinois of the Missouri Valley Football Conference on Saturday. While an 0-2 start is certainly a possibility for a Northern Arizona team picked to win the Big Sky, a couple of early losses wouldn’t dash its postseason aspirations. The 18th-ranked Leathernecks can vouch for that.

A year ago, WIU suffered September losses at Illinois and Coastal Carolina but ended up becoming the first team in FCS history to earn an at-large playoff bid after a 6-5 regular-season record.

"No team should be penalized for playing good people," Leathernecks coach Charlie Fisher said.

The Lumberjacks missed the playoffs last season despite going 7-4. The offense took off behind Case Cookus, who threw for 3,111 yards with an FCS freshman-record 37 TDs, and the 2015 STATS FCS Freshman of the Year winner picked up right where he left off in the 2016 opener.

Cookus completed 23 of 33 passes for 369 yards with an 87-yard touchdown to Elijah Marks — the only time NAU reached the end zone — in last Saturday’s 44-13 loss to the Sun Devils. The Lumberjacks trailed 10-6 midway through the third quarter before ASU pulled away.

Cookus was able to march the Lumberjacks down the field as they piled up 425 yards but 11 penalties — their most since 2013 — and a 5-of-16 conversion rate on third downs led to their undoing. They also turned the ball over on downs once in the red zone.

"I think we are happy with the amount of yards and how we moved the ball, but we’re not happy with some of the stupid mistakes we made in the red zone not coming away with points," Cookus said. "We have a lot to work on but there are a lot of positives there. We’ll take the positives and the negatives and work on it."

One area that needs to get cleaned up — and quickly — is their run defense.

After being gashed for 276 rushing yards by ASU, NAU has the tough task of trying to stop Steve McShane.

A dual-sport athlete who is an outfielder on the WIU baseball team, McShane rushed for 207 yards on 28 carries with two touchdowns in last Saturday’s 38-21 win over Eastern Illinois of the Ohio Valley. He became the first WIU player to rush for 200 yards in a game since 2008 and was a threat out of the backfield in the passing game, hauling in a team-high four receptions for 56 yards.

"We were able to stay patient and run the ball. That is something I’ve emphasized since I got here, which is to have a running game on a regular basis," said Fisher, who won his debut. "We need to run and we need to be able to make the runs and we did."

Establishing a ground game is paramount if the Leathernecks once again struggle to move the ball through the air.

Sean McGuire, who started WIU’s final four games last season as a freshman, completed just 13 of 28 passes for 109 with a two-yard TD pass to tight end Tony Harper. Only seven of his completions went to receivers and preseason All-MVFC selection Lance Lenoir’s 15-yard reception was the lone one longer than nine yards.

It was a somewhat troubling showing for McGuire after he was at 284.5 yards per game and 7.5 per attempt in his starts last season. Not to mention his top two targets from a year ago are back in Lenoir and Joey Borsellino, who totaled 145 catches for 2,033 yards. The two combined for three receptions for 24 yards last week.

While getting McGuire and his receivers on the same page is important, shoring up the pass defense is critical to have any hope in slowing down Cookus.

WIU allowed 366 passing yards to the Panthers and was vulnerable to big plays, permitting catches of 28, 34, 40, 53 and 79 yards.

Cookus averaged 11.2 yards per attempt in the opener, connecting with Marks eight times for 174 yards and completing seven passes to Emmanuel Butler for 118. Butler set a NAU record with 1,208 receiving yards last season and was a STATS FCS All-America second team selection.

"Very explosive on offense with Case Cookus as their quarterback, arguably the best one in the country," Fisher said.

This is one of three matchups between ranked teams from the Big Sky and MVFC this weekend, with top-ranked North Dakota State hosting No. 8 Eastern Washington and 14th-ranked Montana visiting No. 3 Northern Iowa.

NAU, which is 7-10 all-time against MVFC teams, won the only other meeting with WIU, 34-0 in 1967.

"We knew going into the season this would be an important game and a representation of not just our conference but our program and how we stack up," Lumberjacks coach Jerome Souers said. "I think we are similarly ranked to Western Illinois and if that’s accurate or not will be determined. It’s going to be a tough matchup and we’re excited."