It may be a year later than anticipated, but Northern Arizona looks like the team to beat in the Big Sky.
While a healthy Case Cookus is obviously a big reason the Lumberjacks are sitting just outside the STATS FCS Top 25, an opportunistic defense has surprisingly had just as much to do with their success.
NAU was the Big Sky favorite a year ago after Cookus won the 2015 STATS FCS Jerry Rice Award in leading the Lumberjacks to a 7-4 record as a freshman. Any realistic chance of contending was dashed in the fourth game of the 2016 season, however, when Cookus suffered a season-ending collarbone injury and NAU stumbled to a 5-6 finish.
Big Sky coaches and media both figured with Cookus back under the center, the Lumberjacks would again have a good shot at the 2017 conference title, pegging NAU to finish third in each poll. Those predictions may be a bit low, though, as the Lumberjacks (3-2, 2-0) are one of three Big Sky teams undefeated in conference play.
Cookus has essentially picked up right where he left off before his injury and is once again picking apart opposing defenses. He ranks eighth in the FCS in passing yards per game at 316.8 while tossing 12 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Last week, he threw for 380 yards with three touchdowns and was on the receiving end of a 23-yard score for his first career TD reception in NAU's 37-16 win over then-No. 11 Illinois State.
"He wants to make plays and lead his teammates and he did all of those things last Saturday," Lumberjacks coach Jerome Souers said on This Week in Big Sky Football.
That performance earned Cookus the STATS FCS National Offensive Player of the Week honors and he wasn't exactly facing a bunch of scrubs. The Redbirds came in with the FCS' second-ranked defense (166.5 scrimmage yards allowed per game) and had surrendered just three defensive touchdowns through their first four games.
"I think you're seeing Case Cookus develop into more of a complete quarterback," Souers said. "He manages a lot of things on the field for us and I think he and Brian Sheppard, our new offensive coordinator, are developing a real strong rapport. Both of those guys are getting better each week with the production in our offensive unit."
While Cookus' ascension back among the elite quarterbacks was somewhat expected, NAU's defense is really turning some heads.
Despite returning just three defensive starters from a year ago, the unit ranks third in the Big Sky in total defense and held an Illinois State team which came in averaging 458.8 yards to 286 while forcing three turnovers. Souers credits defensive coordinator Andy Thompson for the culture change.
"We're playing a lot more exciting brand of defense," Souers said. "I really think Andy has done a nice job creating a new identity with it."
NAU has 10 sacks in the last two games and only four teams have more interceptions than the Lumberjacks' nine. A year ago, NAU finished the season with eight picks.
"We're trying to be turnover-driven, disruptive and create short fields for our offense and possession advantages for our offense. We've seen our turnover ratio reverse its trend over the last couple of years," Souers said. "Being disruptive means you have to be creative and can't be afraid to run different things and I think Andy's done a great job of that and the players have bought into it, so schematically we're a lot less predictable."
Off to their best conference start since the 2012 team opened with six consecutive wins, the Lumberjacks have a favorable matchup Saturday at winless Portland State. Although the Vikings (0-5, 0-2) are 12th in the 13-team Big Sky in scoring offense at 21.4 points per game and have yielded an average of 36.8 in their last four, Souers isn't worried about his team overlooking them.
"We're on a great trajectory, we're improving each week, our guys are buying into the mentality of 'one-day at a time' and 'staying in the moment.'" Sours said. "We're not talking about trap games or anything like that at all. We know what Big Sky Conference football is like and every week is competitive and you can lose on the road just as easy as you can at home if you're not ready to play. It doesn't matter who you're playing or what the records are."