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NAU’s Case Cookus off to another strong start

Northern Arizona’s Case Cookus throws a pass against Arizona State earlier this month (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)
Northern Arizona’s Case Cookus throws a pass against Arizona State earlier this month (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

Eastern Washington may have the most prolific passing offense in the Football Championship Subdivision, but it’s not the most efficient.

That distinction belongs to Eastern’s next opponent, Northern Arizona, and its sensational sophomore quarterback Case Cookus.

Three games into the season, Cookus is 63-for-91 for 928 yards, 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions. That computes to an FCS-leading 191.2 passer rating; in comparison, Eastern quarterback Gage Gubrud is seventh, at 170.7.

“He understands what they’re trying to do and he gets the ball in the right position,” EWU coach Beau Baldwin said of Cookus. Baldwin also marveled at Cookus’ ability to hit the deep ball while still completing almost 70 percent of his passes.

Cookus’ stats were skewed in last week’s 73-3 NAU win over Division II New Mexico, as he threw seven TD passes. However, his numbers last year were phenomenal: 37 touchdown passes, a 184.9 passer rataing and only five interceptions.

The numbers added up to Cookus winning the national Freshman of the Year Award – not bad for a guy who had no Division 1 offers and who didn’t play quarterback until his senior year of high school.

Eastern fans saw for themselves last November. In front of a sellout crowd at Roos Field, Cookus went 22-for-30 for 224 yards to lead NAU to a resounding 52-30 win. That game was the beginning of a three-game slide that cost the Eagles a postseason berth.

The Lumberjacks also missed the postseason, going 7-4, but come into this year as the preseason favorites to win the Big Sky Conference. However, road losses to Arizona State (44-13) and Western Illinois (34-20) left them 0-2.

“I think there are guys on the team that have shown glimpses of what they can do,” the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Cookus said after the win over New Mexico Highlands. “We have to get everyone in game mode. From here, it’s about how to keep it rolling and improving.

“Without the mental mistakes we can win our games from here on out,” Cookus said.

No timetable on Kupp’s return, Baldwin says

All-American wide receiver Cooper Kupp is a game-time decision and there’s no timetable for his return, Baldwin said Wednesday.

“You’re always concerned about that, how quick you bring a guy back, what’s that gonna do. That’s always something,” Baldwin said.

Kupp suffered a shoulder sprain at North Dakota State on Sept. 10 and didn’t play in last week’s win over Northern Iowa.

“We don’t have a crystal ball, so it’s hard to know for sure. You just have to try to use your best judgment on something like that,” Baldwin said. “Obviously, we defer to the trainers and the doctors and what they say. But sometimes injuries like this are kind of up in the air on when you want to bring someone back.”

Baldwin seeks faster start

The Eagles may be 2-1, but the path was made tougher by slow starts in all three games against Washington State, North Dakota State and Northern Iowa.

“I need to find a way for us to start better,” Baldwin said Wednesday. “I don’t know that there’s a magic recipe … but I don’t think we’ve won the early portion of any of those games.”

Indeed, the Eagles trailed almost the entire second half at WSU, were down two scores at NDSU and were dominated by UNI en route to a 24-7 halftime deficit.

However, in all three games, the Eastern defense got some big stops in the third quarter to get the Eagles back in the game. That included forcing four straight three-and-outs last weekend as Eastern came from behind.

Added Baldwin: “We’ve won all three second halves, and that’s no accident.”

In the past six-plus seasons, the Eagles have won 17 games when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter. Six of those came in the 2010 national championship season.

Griz at Cal Poly in key early game

The other marquee game in the Big Sky this week puts unbeaten Montana (2-0) on the road against surprising Cal Poly.

The Mustangs are 2-1, including an overtime loss at Nevada, an easy win over San Diego and a 38-31 win last weekend at South Dakota State. The latter win capped a strong non-conference effort for the conference, which went 5-4 against the Missouri Valley Conference.

Cal Poly continues to lead the nation in rushing offense, averaging 392.3 yards per game, and Mustang fullback Joe Protheroe leads the Big Sky with 155.7 yards.

The Griz, who are coming off a bye, are coming off a 20-14 win at Northern Iowa.

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