Coming off a rare win over an FBS school, the Northern Arizona football team now has its focus set on the No. 6-ranked Eastern Washington Eagles.
In the team’s season opener last weekend, the No. 18-ranked Lumberjacks pulled off their first win over an FBS program since 2012 with a 30-10 road win over UTEP in El Paso, Texas.
On Saturday, the team will face one of the toughest nonconference challenges it has on the schedule.
Eastern Washington entered the season picked to win the Big Sky Conference in both the media and coaches preseason polls, and is currently the highest-ranked Big Sky school in both of the national polls after a 58-13 win over Central Washington in Week One.
Although Eastern Washington is a conference rival, this year’s game is considered nonconference as part of a two-game series between the schools -- with the second being in Spokane, Washington, in 2020. The game will be used as a tiebreaker at the end of the season if needed for Big Sky standings.
Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers said the early-season matchup against a top-five team, and one of the top programs in the conference, will prove to be a good gauge for where Northern Arizona stands.
“It’s always a good test of your program to see where you are at when you play those guys,” Souers said.
Souers said after practice Thursday that starting running back Cory Young and starting left guard Malik Noshi, who both left with injuries in the first half against UTEP, are probable for the home opener on Saturday.
Young partially participated in practice Thursday and Noshi did not practice, both because Souers said they wanted to ensure the two could be ready to play Saturday.
The Eagles are led by preseason All-American Third Team quarterback Gage Gubrud, a three-year starter at Eastern Washington.
In the previous game between Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington in 2016, Gubrud threw for 392 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for 95 yards and one TD en route to a 50-35 win over in the Walkup Skydome.
The loss was the same game in which Lumberjacks quarterback Case Cookus was injured and then subsequently missed the rest of the season with a broken collarbone.
Before leaving the game with the injury, Cookus had thrown for 245 yards, three TDs and one interception.
“Obviously it was kind of a bummer, leaving halfway through, and this time I want to have a good game and execute the game plan,” Cookus said.
Cookus acknowledged how Gubrud and the Eastern Washington offense has the potential to give the Northern Arizona defense trouble, but still has faith the defense can make plays when needed.
“He’s a good quarterback and I think our defense is going to have their hands full trying to stop him, but I have faith in our defense in shutting him down and getting a few turnovers for us,” Cookus said.
“I think what it will come down to is who protects the ball the best,” Cookus added.
In both of the two previous games between the two, in 2015 and 2016, the team that won the turnover battle was the same team to win the game.
Defensively, Lumberjacks safety Wes Sutton keyed on Eagles wide receiver Nsimba Webster as one of the priorities on the outside.
The Eagles top returning receiver this year, Webster ended 2017 with 59 receptions for 693 yards and five TDs, second on the team in both categories.
“You know, there are a lot of good matchups on the field -- they have some good receivers,” Sutton said. “We know (Gubrud) is a good quarterback and we just need to key on what we need to do, how we have to guard these receivers, where we need to be on the field and make plays when he throws the ball our way.”
Sutton also compared the Eagles receivers to the Lumberjacks group, adding that they both are similar in size, so the defense has been able work against a similar group to what they will see Saturday.
Kickoff for Northern Arizona’s home opener is set for 4 p.m. at the Skydome.