It looks like Jerome Souers has discovered what it takes to motivate his Northern Arizona University football team, which had started the 2017 season with two straight losses.
He just had to tell them he was leaving.
Since the popular head coach at NAU announced that his 20th season directing the Lumberjack program would be his last, the ‘Jacks have won three in a row and on Saturday pulled off a stunning upset of unbeaten and seventh-ranked Illinois State in Flagstaff, the first time in four years they have defeated a Missouri Valley Conference team and the first time they have knocked off a ranked team since about this time last year when they beat No. 10 Montana.
The Flagstaff school and its long-time coach made a joint announcement in mid-September to let fans know that this would be Souers’ final season with the program. The ‘Jacks opened the schedule with losses to University of Arizona and Western Illinois, but the decision was based more on the program’s under-achieving performance in recent years.
However, there has been nothing to fault in this team’s performance since Souers’ announcement. In the last three games, NAU has been outscoring its opponents by an average 22 points a game.
While the defense has been stepping up its game, the offense has been on a tear. The ‘Jacks ran up 437 yards of total offense two weeks ago against Northern Colorado and then came back Saturday and piled up 431 yards against the team that entered the contest boasting the No. 2-ranked defense in the country.
And the engineer sitting in the cab of this runaway train is Case Cookus, the sophomore phenom from Thousand Oaks, Calif., who came into this season leading all Division I quarterbacks with a 184.70 passing efficiency. The 6’4″ signal caller threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns Saturday against Illinois State, two weeks after posting 406 yards and four TDs against Cal Poly.
Cookus even added a trick play Saturday that enabled him to score the first TD reception of his NAU career when he lateraled the ball to Chance Brewington and took a return pass from the freshman wide receiver from Chandler’s Hamilton High School, running the ball in for a 23-yard score that increased the Jacks’ lead to 27-6 midway through the third quarter.
The win against Illinois State could be seen as a true indicator of how much this team has improved since its 0-2 start. The Redbirds (4-1) had given up just three touchdowns in their first four games before the ‘Jacks hung that many on them in a single game. And that was against an Illinois State defense that came into the game ranked second among FBS programs in yards allowed, with 165.5 per game.
The Redbirds managed just one touchdown and had to count on three field goals for the rest of their scoring.
Credit that lack of scoring to an aggressive NAU defense that put a lot of pressure on Redbird quarterback Jake Kolbe, which in turn resulted in three interceptions, one each from Byron Evans, Maurice Davidson, and Andrew Gose.
NAU’s junior safety Josh Clarke led the team with 11 tackles, including a sack and three tackles for loss.
Elijah Marks, the senior receiver from Desert Edge High School in Goodyear, gave the ‘Jacks a 13-6 lead at halftime with a 32-yard TD reception with 29 seconds left in the second quarter, and finished the game with eight receptions for 130 yards. Marks (pictured above) has been a big contributor to the turnaround, contributing 100 or more yards in each of the last three games.
NAU scooped up both conference Player of the Week honors after the Illinois State win. Cookus was named the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week and Clarke earned defensive POW honors. Cookus was also named the STATS FCS National Offensive Player of the Week.