Call it bad timing, but Eastern Washington will face the hottest team in the Big Sky Conference when it hosts Northern Arizona on Saturday.
That the Lumberjacks are only 5-3 overall and 3-2 in the conference will make them more desperate, because since they’re fighting for their postseason lives.
They have plenty to fight with, including the highest-rated passer in the Football Championship Subdivision, a solid running game and a defense that’s been dominant in the first half of recent games.
Witness their last two games, a 52-36 drubbing of Weber State in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicates; and a 63-21 demolition of Northern Colorado.
By comparison, Eastern is coming off wins over the same two teams – by a combined three points.
“They’re coming in with a ton of confidence,” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said.
NAU quarterback Case Cookus is playing like a conference MVP, Eastern wide receiver Cooper Kupp notwithstanding. After playing for one year at a junior college in southern California, Cookus made short work of wide-open race for starting QB.
“In his ability to throw the football and his vision, he’s pretty far along for a freshman,” NAU coach Jerome Souers said. “And his mobility has helped him extend plays.”
The result: a 197.4 passer rating that’s 30 points better than anyone else in the conference. Cookus, a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder, is 142 for 203 for 1,684 yards, 26 touchdowns and just three touchdowns.
Cookus was named the national FCS STATS Offensive Player of the Week after his performance last week against UNC: 25 for 31 for 363 yards and a school-record-tying seven touchdown passes.
Eastern’s Jordan West ranks second with a 169.4 rating (203 for 299, 2,639 yards 28 TDs and five picks).
Cookus’ favorite target is wide receiver Emmanuel Butler, who second behind Kupp in yards (896) and touchdown catches (13).
Running back Casey Jahn has 875 rushing yards and five TDs.
“They have all the pieces – they have a running game that is very effective, receivers that are good as a whole and one who is off-the-charts, and the quarterback is doing as well as anyone in the country if you look at his numbers,” Baldwin said.
Adding further incentive, Northern Arizona is playing for its postseason life. At one point the Lumberjacks lost three out of four, including an inexplicable 38-24 defeat at last-place UC Davis.
“I think we were pretty frustrated after the UC Davis game,” said Souers, whose team followed that with a bye week “that allowed us to reset our focus.”
The Lumberjacks have been plenty focused since then scoring 42 points in the first half against both Weber and Northern Colorado.
“I said last week that Weber State had the best defense we’ve played against to this point, and now I’ll say, outside of maybe Oregon, that NAU has the best offense we will have faced,” Baldwin said.
Kupp tops the charts
Just four touchdown catches away from the FCS career record, Eastern wide receiver Cooper Kupp continues to lead FCS in receiving touchdowns (17), receiving yards (1,290), receiving yards per game (161.3), receptions (91) and receptions per game (11.4), and is third in scoring (13.5 per game).
Those numbers are so extreme he is 15 catches, 348 yards and four TDs ahead of the next-highest marks in FCS.
On Oct. 7, Kupp was one of 25 players (including EWU quarterback West) to be named by STATS to its updated watch list for FCS Offensive Player of the Year. On Oct. 19, he and West were named to the 32-player midseason watch list for College Football Performance Awards FCS National Performer of the Year.
Montana State on the ropes
Preseason Big Sky co-favorite Montana State has dropped three of its last five, dropping to 2-3 in the conference and 4-4 overall.
The Bobcats still might sneak into the FCS playoffs as an at-large team, but they need to run the table in their last three games against Southern Utah, Idaho State and Montana.
With quarterback Dakota Prukop, the Bobcats are averaging 520 yards a game in total offense, but their defense is statistically the worst in the conference. MSU is giving up 505 yards a game and 6.2 yards per rush.
Things are bad enough that coach Rob Ash was asked this week if he was worried about his job.
No,” he told the Billings Gazette. “The only pressure I’m feeling is I want these guys to enjoy the game again. We’ll enjoy the game when we play better and when we win.”
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