Looking to spread the ball around, Case Cookus hit three different receivers for first-half touchdowns before adding one on the ground as the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks rolled for the second straight week.
A week after the Northern Colorado Bears (2-2, 1-1 Big Sky) put up 40 points for a win, the Lumberjacks (2-2, 2-0) cut that total in half to help secure the 48-20 victory Saturday in the Walkup Skydome.
Cookus and his receivers in the first half alone matched Northern Colorado’s final total, as the quarterback found Jonathan Baldwin, Elijah Marks and William Morehand for touchdowns on the way to a 20-0 lead through the first 28 minutes of the game.
“They were putting No. 1 on Elijah, so they would kind of move him around when they could,” Cookus said of Northern Colorado’s coverage, a week after Marks went for 200 yards receiving at Cal Poly. “So that extra defender they had on Elijah compromised the rest of their defense. There was usually a hole that we could find, in-breaking routes worked really well for us this game."
Baldwin caught the game’s first score, standing wide open in the back of the end zone from nine yards out to cap off a short, 43-yard drive thanks to Northern Arizona’s defense and special teams pinning Northern Colorado at its own 1-yard line.
Trailing only Marks’ seven catches for 106 yards, Baldwin finished with four grabs for 59 yards as Cookus looked to his tight end often. Morehand added 25 yards on his three receptions at receiver, and running back Cory Young continued the diversity in targets, finishing third on the team with three catches for 39 yards.
Cookus finished his day 23-of-38 passing for 271 yards and the three scores, completely avoiding turnovers for the second consecutive game. Marks’ touchdown came along the right sideline of the end zone, tapping his left foot down as he fell out of bounds, and Morehand scored as he laid out fully extended in the left corner of the end zone, keeping both feet in before falling forward.
“That boggles my mind every time I throw it, but it gives me the confidence to keep throwing them,” Cookus said of the highlight catches. “If they are going to keep coming down with them, I am going to keep throwing them.”
RELIEVING THE PRESSURE
Shut out for the first 28 minutes, Northern Colorado answered Morehand’s score with a nine-play, 75-yard drive in just 1:29 that culminated in a Jacob Knipp’s 15-yard touchdown pass to Frank Stephens.
Knipp completed 5 of 9 passes on the drive, highlighted by a 25-yard completion to Hakeem Deggs, as he accounted for all 75 yards. A week after passing for 400 yards and four touchdowns in a victory against Idaho State, the touchdown was Knipp’s only one of the game. He managed just 301 yards on 26 of 44 passing, while throwing a pair of interceptions and taking four sacks.
“This is a team that put over 40 points on Idaho State last week. We were very concerned about their explosiveness, and we saw some of that explosiveness on their last drive of the second quarter and into the second half,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers. “They were throwing the ball downfield and their receivers were making plays.”
The Bears followed with another 75-yard drive after halftime, with running back Trae Riek carrying the ball six times for 43 yards, including a 7-yard score to cut the Lumberjacks’ lead to 20-14.
'OFF TO THE RACES'
However, Marks took some pressure off the Lumberjacks when he stutter-stepped out of the end zone on the ensuing return, weaved to his right around a block by Joe Logan and sprung free at his own 25-yard line for the kickoff return touchdown.
“That's my first kick return since I've been here all four years, so it is kind of exciting,” said Marks, who has scored four touchdowns in the past two weeks combined. “We have been working on that all practice, every day. Joe got his block and we were off to the races.”
With the NCAA capping plays at a maximum of 100 yards, Marks’ return appeared to be roughly 103 yards and tied Northern Arizona’s record for the longest play in school history.
“It really was huge. When's the last time this has happened, especially in a Big Sky game?” Souers said postgame, with Northern Arizona’s last kickoff return touchdown coming nearly four years ago at Cal Poly. “It's been a long time. We have been working very hard on our returns, probably more than in years past. ... Elijah has been begging for that. You see his open-field speed when he gets into that kind of a situation; it's hard to keep up with him.”
Souers added that the Lumberjacks tweaked their blocking on their returns in order to set up a crease for their returners, praising the work of special teams coordinator Gary Hyman.
MIX AND MATCH
Digging deep into their depth on the defensive line, Northern Arizona topped its previous season-highs in sacks and quarterback hurries. After only facing 55 passes through their first three games, the Lumberjacks saw the Bears throw it 46 times, with Northern Arizona recording five sacks and five hurries.
Freshman Chauntez Thomas played in just his second game this season and recorded a sack that nearly resulted in a safety, two hurries, two tackles for loss and picked up a fumble after Maurice Davison smashed Deggs and launched the ball back 10 yards.
“Andy Thompson really has to be applauded for the sequencing he called,” Souers said of his defensive coordinator. “That's tough to call a game like that. The things they were doing with formations and some of the different scheme changes, it was a challenge. Every time they threw something at us, I thought our counter punch was well thought out and well executed.”
Now holding a plus-5 turnover differential in Big Sky play, Northern Arizona scored on all three of Northern Colorado’s mistakes. Kam’ron Johnson’s second-quarter interception led to Marks’ touchdown, Thomas’ fumble recovery set up Morehand’s touchdown and Taylor Powell’s interception at his own 15 went back 85 yards as the linebacker weaved through traffic and picked up blocks on his way to the end zone.
Northern Arizona returns to nonconference play next week, hosting the Non. 12-ranked Illinois State Redbirds (4-0) next Saturday at 4 p.m.
AROUND THE BIG SKY
WEBER STATE 25, MONTANA STATE 17
BOZEMAN, Mont. — Trey Tuttle connected on all four of his field goal attempts to push Weber State to a win over Montana State.
While Tuttle was perfect, Montana State kicker Gabe Peppenger missed two of three attempts and the Bobcats couldn't overcome the Wildcats.
Montana State (1-3, 1-1 Big Sky) drove deep into Weber State territory on its first three possessions, but managed just one field goal. Tuttle hit on three in the first half to put the Wildcats up 9-3.
Chris Murray hit Lance McCutcheon on a 65-yard pass down the sideline as the first half came to a close with the Bobcats ahead 10-9.
Kevin Smith scored on a 6-yard run early in the third quarter to give Weber State the lead at 15-10. Hunter Cantwell followed with a one-yard sneak for a score that put the Wildcats in control at 22-10.
Cantwell finished with 206 yards passing and 49 yards rushing. The Wildcats held the ball for more than 40 minutes despite outgaining Montana State 369 yards to 363. The Bobcats had five plays over 25 yards, while the Wildcats longest play was 25 yards.
EASTERN WASHINGTON 52, SACRAMENTO STATE 31
CHENEY, Wash. — Gage Gubrud threw two touchdown passes and had a third receiving, all in the first quarter, and Eastern Washington went on to defeat Sacramento State.
Gubrud finished with 447 yards, a week after throwing for a school record 549, on 35-of-50 passing and five touchdowns, each to different receivers. Antoine Custer had five catches for 115 yards and ran for another 81 yards, scoring a touchdown rushing and receiving.
Gubrud hit Talolo Limu-Jones from 6 yards to open the scoring and Custer turned a screen pass into a 33-yard touchdown. In between, Gubrud took a pass back from Sam McPherson and went 43 yards to score. The Eagles (3-2, 2-0 Big Sky) had 263 yards in the first quarter and finished with 637.
Sacramento State (2-3, 1-1) scored the next 17 points but EWU went 76 yards in a minute, capped by Gubrud's third TD pass, a 4-yarder to Zach Eagle that made it 28-17 at the half.
MONTANA 45, PORTLAND STATE 33
HILLSBORO, Ore. — Jeremy Calhoun ran for 124 yards and two touchdowns, Justin Strong had three interceptions and a touchdown and Montana defeated Portland State.
Calhoun scored on the opening drive, after a Strong interception on the first play of the game, and late in the second quarter, both on 2-yard runs, and the Grizzlies (3-2, 1-1 Big Sky Conference) led 27-14 at the half.
Gresch Jensen threw for 284 yards, including a 60-yard catch-and-run TD by Keenan Curran in the third quarter.
The Vikings (0-4, 0-1) closed within 37-27 on an 87-yard kickoff return by Kahlil Dawson after a Montana field goal, which was set up by Strong's second interception, in the first minute of the fourth quarter. Strong iced the game with a 64-yard interception return with 3:15 to play. Strong had 116 return yards on his three picks.
IDAHO STATE 38, CAL POLY 34
POCATELLO, Idaho — Tanner Gueller threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns and led a fourth-quarter comeback as Idaho State beat Cal Poly 38-34 on Saturday.
After Casey Sublette's 29-yard field goal put the Mustangs up 34-24 with 11:50 left, Gueller led Idaho State (3-2, 1-1 Big Sky) on a 65-yard drive in 97 seconds and connected with Michael Dean on a 30-yard touchdown pass.
Idaho State's defense responded with a three-and-out, and on the ensuing drive, Gueller led a 73-yard march culminating in James Madison's 2-yard touchdown plunge for the game's final margin.
Madison ran for 78 yards and Gueller added 60 on the ground with a touchdown. Mitch Gueller caught three passes for 125 yards and a score and Dean had six receptions for 121 yards and two TDs.