At 2-2, NAU football in desperate need of a running game


One statistic stands out from all the rest when evaluating Northern Arizona University‘s football loss to Illinois State.  And that single stat goes a long way toward explaining the Lumberjack’s underwhelming 2-2 start to the season.

NAU picked up 25 yards on the ground against the Redbirds in the Saturday road game.

It wasn’t like they weren’t trying to run the ball.  Four different ball carriers, including quarterback Case Cookus, took a combined 26 attempts at penetrating the Illinois State defense, all with similar results.  That puts the per-carry average in negative territory.

But the biggest concern for NAU’s new head coach, Chris Ball, is not the single-game results.  It’s the fact that this is becoming a pattern.

Out of the four games this season, NAU runners have broken the 100-yard plateau just once, in a 55-21 victory over Western New Mexico University when the Jacks put up 187 yards rushing.  The 55 points show what can happen when the Jacks have success running the ball.

It took 10 different ball carriers to get there, as well as 485 yards passing – 357 yards from Cookus and another 125 from redshirt freshman Heath Beemiller, who got some valuable playing time once the outcome was well in hand.

However, Western New Mexico is a Division II school that hasn’t won a game this season.  A look at the other three NAU losses provides a more accurate picture of what Ball and his staff are dealing with.

The Jacks were able to post their other win in the season opener in a 37-23 victory over Missouri State.  However, once again it was Cookus’ 351 yards through the air that carried them through.  Their rushing game contributed a meager 88 yards.

Follow that up with 69 yards against University of Arizona and the 25 against Illinois State and you have a better picture of the job ahead of the NAU coaching staff.  Case Cookus, as good as he’s been, can’t do it by himself.

Cookus, a 6’4″ senior from Thousand Oaks, Calif., is averaging 390 passing yards per outing.  He hasn’t had a game that he didn’t throw for at least 350 yards.  He came into the season with 7,968 career passing yards and 74 touchdowns and was named last month to the watch list for the FCS National Performer of the Year.

In Saturday’s 40-27 loss to Illinois State, he became just the fifth quarterback in the history of the program to reach 9,000 yards passing, completing 32-of-56 attempts for 357 yards and four touchdowns, which gives him 86 passing TDS for his career.

He kept the Jacks close at halftime, down just two points (23-21), but the offense couldn’t keep up the pace and went scoreless through the second half while giving up 17 to the Redbirds.

Cookus is having a banner year.  But he’s going to need some help to be able to leave his college career on a winning note.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)