Even on a day when he wasn’t at his sharpest, Northern Arizona’s Case Cookus found ways to beat the UC Davis defense en route to a 35-point run and a fifth straight victory.
Beating the Aggies (3-4, 1-3 Big Sky) 45-31 Saturday afternoon at the Walkup Skydome, the Lumberjacks (5-2, 4-0) took sole possession of first place in the Big Sky Conference as Eastern Washington fell at Southern Utah.
Cookus finished the day 22-of-47 passing, with 293 yards, two touchdowns and his first interception in more than a month. Half of the quarterback's production came in the second quarter as Northern Arizona scored 28 points and accounted for 227 of its 495 yards.
“When we need to go two-minute against a prevent defense like that, it is making the right calls and right adjustments,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers. “Case is getting better and better, that’s the mark of a great quarterback that can move the football team 80 yards in a minute and a half, and he is capable of doing that kind of thing.”
Leading 21-7 with just 1:39 left on the clock before halftime, Cookus took Northern Arizona 65 yards down the field in just six plays and 1:09 of clock. Hitting Hunter Burton for a pair of 17-yard gains, including a diving catch over the middle with 15 yards added on for a roughing the passer call, Cookus capped the drive with an 8-yard touchdown to Buron over the middle of the field.
“They were sitting there on the sidelines pointing out Elijah (Marks) saying, ‘Hey, 3 is over here,’ so three guys would run over and they really compromised their defense,” Cookus said. “HB made two great catches to get us up the field and then score the touchdown on that drive.”
Fearing Marks, who recorded his fifth consecutive game with more than 100 receiving yards at 172 on nine catches, would beat them deep, the Aggies left Burton free to operate over the middle late in the half. The touchdown capped off a run of three touchdowns in the final seven minutes of the second quarter, with Marks responsible for one himself.
After Maurice Davison picked off UC Davis’ Jake Maier for his third straight game with an interception, Cookus held out on third-and-5 for a 32-yard score to Marks streaking across the end zone.
Starting from the left slot, Marks ran up the left hash, broke slightly to his left before cutting back to the right behind the defensive back. As Cookus rolled to his left and stepped up into a defender, the quarterback connected with his receiver as he outran a pair of defensive backs and caught the ball in the end zone at the right hash mark.
“Usually, it is kind of a Cover 2 beater and they ended up rolling to (Cover) 1, so luckily we were on the same page and I left it to where he could just use his speed and get underneath it,” Cookus said. “I left it to where he could outrun all those guys and he did a great job, and our offensive line and backs did a great job of protection.”
Before Cookus hit a pair of touchdown passes, Northern Arizona’s Cory Young came up with a pair of rushing touchdowns, tying the game and then giving the Lumberjacks the lead.
Trailing 7-0 after a late first-quarter touchdown that came on a trick play, with UC Davis handing the ball off to its backup quarterback C.J. Spencer who found Keelan Doss open for a 6-yard touchdown, Northern Arizona finally found its answer on its ensuing drive.
Stuck in a first-and-20 after a holding penalty, Cookus connected with Marks on a free play thanks to an Aggies’ offside penalty and cancelled out the penalty. Again off track with two incompletions leading to a third-and-10, Northern Arizona blocked a run perfectly to spring Young free.
With left guard Tyler Shank sealing the outside on a pull block, tight end Jonathan Baldwin crashing down on a linebacker and right guard Malik Noshi locking up the linebacker at the second level, Young cut back to his left and sprinted into the end zone for a 43-yard score.
Just one drive later, Young capped off a 15-play, 83-yard drive with a 4-yard plunge behind Neal Murphy and Baldwin’s lead blocks from the backfield.
With Joe Logan adding touchdowns from one and two yards out in the second half, Northern Arizona set season-highs with four rushing touchdowns and 202 yards. Young finished with 94 yards on 13 carries and Logan added 87 on 19 runs.
SLOWING A NATIONAL LEADER
Limiting Maier to 18 of 28 for 164 yards and one touchdown, Northern Arizona’s defense again gave a strong performance.
Entering the game with averages of 342.0 yards per game and 9.00 yards per attempt, Maier never generated any momentum against Northern Arizona’s passing defense averaging 188.0 per game.
Likewise, Doss entered the game with averages of 9.3 catches and 145.0 yards per game and ended up limited to 106 yards on 10 catches, with the highlight of his game coming on a 41-yard touchdown pass from Maier near the end of the third quarter.
“Those 35 unanswered points, that's a huge thing. It kind of put the game, not out of reach, but at a distance where they had to take a lot of chances,” Souers said. “I think they wanted to have a more balanced attack in their approach, they wanted to run the ball and mix it up in the passing game. We held their quarterback to less than half of his average and that speaks to a lot of tough cornerback play.”
ALONE AT THE TOP
Sitting at 4-0 in the Big Sky, Northern Arizona now controls its own destiny for a conference title and playoff berth.
Five different schools sit with one conference loss, including Sacramento State, Montana and Southern Utah, all on Northern Arizona’s remaining schedule. Additionally, Illinois State knocked off the No. 4-ranked South Dakota Coyotes 37-21, enhancing the Lumberjacks’ resume after their 37-16 victory over the Redbirds two weeks ago.
“All those teams are good teams and they have the capability of beating us if we start thinking about the future, playoffs, winning the conference and things like that.” Cookus said. “So just taking it one week at a time, we have four more left.”
AROUND THE BIG SKY
SOUTHERN UTAH 46, EASTERN WASHINGTON 28
CEDAR CITY, Utah (AP) — Patrick Tyler had three touchdown passes and James Felila ran for 143 yards with two scores on 27 carries and Southern Utah beat Eastern Washington.
Tyler completed 22 of 33 passes for 183 yards and added 49 yards rushing, while Landen Measom had eight receptions for 57 yards and two touchdowns for Southern Utah (5-2, 3-1 Big Sky).
Southern Utah used a nine-play, 80-yard drive to take the lead for good when, on fourth-and-2, Patrick Tyler hit Logan Parker for a 26-yard touchdown with 7:39 to go. A couple plays later, Jalen Russell intercepted a pass to set up a 12-yard scoring catch by Measom that made it 39-28 just 75 seconds later.
Eastern Washington (5-3, 4-1) committed four turnovers and had its five-game win streak snapped. Gage Gubrud had 246 yards passing and 64 yards rushing, but threw three interceptions.
The Eagles took a 14-0 lead on a 3-yard rushing touchdown by Sam McPherson in the first quarter and, after Jay Green's 1-yard scoring run and Parker's 2-point conversion run, Dre Dorton returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards to make it 21-8 with 5:12 left in the first half. Felila had an 8-yard TD run before the half, Measom added an 8-yard scoring reception in the third and Manny Berz hit a 43-yard field goal to make it 25-21 going into the fourth.
SACRAMENTO STATE 34, NORTH DAKOTA 27
GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Andre Lindsey hauled in four passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns as Sacramento State scored 24 points in the third quarter, then held off North Dakota for a win.
Roman Ale threw for 263 yards and the two scoring tosses to Lindsey as Sacramento State (4-3, 3-1) picked up its first road win of the season.
Ale connected with Lindsey on a 56-yard scoring strike on Sacramento State's third play after the break to go ahead 17-10. Lindsey caught a 69-yard touchdown toss earlier.
Dariyn Choates sacked North Dakota's Keaton Studsrud on the next series, causing a fumble that Marcus Bruce scooped up and ran in from 25 yards out for the score.
WEBER STATE 17, CAL POLY 3
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Stefan Cantwell had 236 total yards and passed for two touchdowns to help Weber State beat Cal Poly.
Cantwell was 14-of-23 passing for 182 yards with one interception and had 11 carries for 54 yards while the Weber State (5-2, 3-1 Big Sky) defense forced four turnovers and four three-and-outs.
Kawika Tupuola sacked Jake Jeffrey on fourth-and-2 and, five plays later, Cantwell hit David Jones for a 26-yard touchdown and then ran in to 2-point conversion to make it 8-0 with 5:37 left in the first quarter. Cal Poly's Casey Sublette hit a 43-yard field goal just before halftime and Trey Tuttle made a 37-yarder early in the third quarter to make it 11-3. Drew Batchelor's 35-yard TD catch with 14:54 to play capped the scoring.
Cal Poly (0-7, 0-4) has lost eight in a row overall, dating to a 35-21 loss to San Diego in the 2016 FCS playoffs, and its seven-game skid is longest single-season losing streak since going 0-10 in 1965. The Mustangs, who led the FCS in rushing yards per game each of the previous four seasons, were limited to a season-low 106 on 41 carries.