With an offense as efficient as Eastern Washington’s, its defense – one of the most experienced in the Big Sky Conference – just has to do a serviceable job.
It’s done that and more.
Defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding’s crew made a statement on Saturday when it disconcerted No. 18 Northern Arizona on its own turf in a 31-26 win, allowing just 13 points through three quarters and limiting one of the best FCS receivers the country to a meager four catches.
It tallied five sacks and blocked a field-goal attempt. It also had an interception on NAU’s second series, ultimately leading the Eagles to an early 14-0 cushion.
That lead was when starting quarterback and All-Big Sky Conference talent Case Cookus was in the game.
He got knocked out later in the first quarter.
When the Eagles’ defense did get pushed – it gave up more than 400 total yards but just 128 on the ground – it often atoned by tightening up the red zone and forcing three field-goal attempts. Andy Katzenberger’s fourth-quarter sack on third down in NAU’s red zone was especially clutch.
Defensive lineman Dylan Ledbetter had a team-high seven tackles, a blocked field goal and a late sack.
The Eagles’ 58-13 rout of NCAA Division II power Central Washington was another defensive beauty, but it came with a you-played-a-smaller-school asterisk.
On Saturday, the group showed it can give good teams headaches, too, a big jump from a 2017 squad ranked 115th in total defense.
Last year the defense totaled just six interceptions. It already has two this year.
“Everybody – and we’re as guilty as anyone – just expect the offense to be great because it’s been great for a long time, and they expect the defense to not be as great, because we haven’t lived up to everyone’s expectations for some time,” EWU coach Aaron Best said. “But we knew we’d be able to lean on these guys.”
Senior safety Mitch Fettig is happy with the effort.
“It’s just been a savage effort. It’s been unbelievable,” Fettig said. “I can’t be more proud of this defense for just the plays we’re making and swarming around the football.”
For the second straight week, All-Big Sky running back Antoine Custer sat out with an injury and Sam McPherson got the majority of the carries.
McPherson, who rushed for nearly 200 yards a week ago, averaged around 3 yards a carry against a NAU defense that had slowed down the Eagles’ running backs.
He made up for the low output late in the fourth quarter, though. With EWU needing to keep ball out of NAU’s hands with less than 2 minutes to go, McPherson iced the game with a 94-yard run, but was stopped near the goal line. He totaled 161 yards on 22 carries.
Quarterback Gage Gubrud rushed for 80 yards on six carries. In his last meeting with NAU in 2016, he rushed for 90.
When Cookus faced EWU in 2016 – a 50-35 Eagles win in Flagstaff – he left the game in the third quarter with a shoulder injury after already passing for 250 yards. He didn’t play another game that season, using his medical redshirt.
The Walter Payton Award nominee QB was injured again and left the game late the first quarter. He appeared to be favoring his right shoulder and didn’t return after gettting tackled near EWU’s sideline.
“I know they took him to the medical facility to have him checked.
“He was in quite a bit of pain, but I don’t really know (his status),” NAU head coach Jerome Souers said.
Sutton doesn’t play
Cookus and defensive All-Big Sky defensive back Wes Sutton represented NAU at Big Sky Media Days this summer in Spokane.
Cookus only played a quarter. Sutton wasn’t suited up.
O-line holds steady
EWU’s deep and offensive line not only gave Gubrud ample time, it kept his jersey clean.
The Eagles yielded just one sack Saturday, the first of the season.