In dropping its first home opener since 1992 Saturday afternoon, 38-20, to the No. 22 Western Illinois Leathernecks (2-0), the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (0-2) took more than a loss to its record.
All-American receiver Emmanuel Butler left the game with a shoulder injury just five minutes into the first quarter, with starting defensive tackle Jalen Goss and starting cornerback Khalil Dorsey departing with injuries as well.
“You witnessed a pretty good whooping there, we tip our hats to Western Illinois. They show what a playoff-level team looks like and how they play,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers. “... Lost a few guys tonight unfortunately. We will find out what that looks like here in the next couple days.”
Diving for a third-and-7 pass on an out route to the right sideline, Butler came down hard on his shoulder, and Western Illinois came up with the interception in the Walkup Skydome. With Butler out, Northern Arizona’s offense managed just 100 yards in the first half, but still trailed by just three points thanks to a touchdown by freshman quarterback Stone Smartt, who took a shotgun snap up the middle for a 5-yard touchdown while Case Cookus lined up at receiver.
The nine-play, 75-yard included four first-down passes, two to a returning William Morehand along with one each to Joe Logan and Chancellor Brewington. However, the Lumberjacks finished the game with just 13 total first downs and just 3 of 12 on third-down conversions.
“We are too inconsistent with our plays,” Cookus said. “We will go big play and then we will go loss or no gain. We need to clean all that up.”
Western Illinois answered with its own 10-play, 75-yard drive to eat up most of the final 5:25 of the first half and finished the drive with a touchdown on fourth-and-goal at the half yard line. Receiving the ball to start the second half, Western Illinois could not score on its ensuing possession but strip sacked Cookus in the end zone for a touchdown on Northern Arizona’s first second-half drive to take a 24-7 lead.
A PROMISING RETURN
While much of the day looked bleak as Northern Arizona lost starters on each side of the ball, Morehand’s return from his Lisfranc fracture to his foot came sooner than expected with impressive results.
“That Lisfranc foot injury is really serious. A lot of people never come back from it,” said Souers, who saw the career of former fullback and current graduate assistant Nick Butier end due to the injury. “I thought our medical and Cherisse (Kutyreff) has done a great job with working him back slowly and patiently. The kid has been awesome. You talk about painful rehab, that is painful rehab.”
Injured in last year’s Nov. 12 game at North Dakota, Morehand practiced fully this week while still taking his recovery slowly. Targeted five times, the receiver finished with four catches for 65 yards and three first downs.
“He shows flashes of being back full,” Souers said of the All-Big Sky Honorable Mention punt returner. “He’s done a great job and he can help us. If we keep Elijah (Marks) healthy, he gives us two threats.”
RUN GAME STIFLED
After Logan and Cory Young each rushed for 100 yards last week against Arizona, the Lumberjacks managed just 57 rushing yards on 25 attempts.
“Their down three guys are tough, they’re really good football players, and their middle backer, Taylor, he’s an All-American,” said Souers, with Brett Taylor leading the Leathernecks with 12 tackles. “We were trying to get the game to go wider, and when we did a guy would miss his block and they got penetration. The times when we did block it, we had a couple of decent runs, but they were just too few and far between.”
Logan finished with 26 yards on 11 carries, highlighted by an 18-yard gain in the first quarter. Young carried the ball just four times for nine carries.
Western Illinois finished with 207 rushing yards despite being without starter Steve McShane, who injured his ankle last week against Tennessee Tech. On the Leathernecks’ second play from scrimmage, receiver Jaelon Acklin topped the Lumberjacks’ eventual total with a 63-yard touchdown run off the edge.
“Every aspect that you look at, they beat us to the point of the attack,” Souers said. “They ran the ball well against us and their plan was really creative -- it is unique and very effective.”
A year after Western Illinois controlled the time of possession 36:44-23:16 in Macomb, the Leathernecks stepped it up further and held the ball for 39:03. Converting 9 of 16 third downs, Western Illinois put together four drives lasting more than five minutes while Northern Arizona’s longest came at 3:38 when scoring its first touchdown.
“We were concerned about ball control and their ability to convert in those situations,” Souers said. “Getting them off the field after third downs was a key area we didn't accomplish. Offensively, I thought they took us out of our rhythm early and we really never got established.”
KEEPING HIM UPRIGHT
While he only left the game late with the victory out of reach, Cookus took a few hard hits for the second week in a row.
Blitzed from the backside while looking through his progressions to the left, Cookus was drilled by Western Illinois’ Mick Nelson and Aaron Diggs. Fumbling the ball in the end zone on a drive that started at their own 11, the Lumberjacks failed to come up with the ball and the Leathernecks added six as Eric Carrera scored the touchdown.
“Case Cookus is a tremendous competitor and we have got to bring the rest of the team up to his level,” Souers said. “We can’t have him getting hit the way he is getting hit, nothing good is going to come from that.”
Cookus finished 18 of 35 for 221 yards and a pair of touchdowns to tight ends Jonathan Baldwin and Matt Kempton.
Baldwin’s score came after Brewington put the Lumberjacks at the 30 thanks to a catch up the right seam, as Cookus had plenty of time to throw downfield. One play later, Baldwin streaked up the left seam and caught the ball over a defender for the touchdown. The two passes were easily Cookus’ longest of the game
“There were times when our passing attack was effective, but not consistent enough at the end of the day,” Souers said. “The kind of protection we need for Case Cookus to be consistent, it has to be better than it was.”