For the past generation, the Big Sky Conference big three of Montana, Eastern Washington and Montana State have dominated the league landscape. Either Griz, Eagles or Bobcats claimed at least a share of every Big Sky title between 1993 and 2014.
Meanwhile, Northern Arizona has built itself into the most consistent program among the rest of the league’s 13 members. And the Lumberjacks are still trying to earn respect.
In 2012, NAU posted an 8-3 record yet were snubbed from the FCS playoff field. NAU made the playoffs the next season but were forced to go on the road despite a 9-3 record that included seven league victories. Last season, NAU scored at least 49 points in five different conference games. The Lumberjacks posted four straight wins, including victories over Weber State and No. 4 Eastern Washington that likely kept each out of the playoffs.
Still, NAU’s 7-4 record wasn’t good enough to earn a post-season bid.
“The last four years, only one team in the Big Sky has more wins than NAU and that’s Eastern Washington,” said NAU second-year offensive coordinator Tim Plough, an assistant under 19th-year head coach Jerome Souers since 2013. “We have more wins than Montana, more wins than Montana State and yet, those teams have gone to the playoffs almost every year and somehow, we’ve been left out. I think that goes back to that we haven’t earned that respect yet.”
Since 2012, Eastern Washington has posted a 40-14 record that includes 27 league victories in 32 Big Sky contests. EWU had its streak of three straight conference titles halted last season by Southern Utah’s first-ever Big Sky title. Over the last four seasons, NAU has claimed 31 regular-season victories, one more than Montana State and two more than Montana. NAU’s 23-9 conference record over the last four seasons is better than MSU or UM; the Griz and the Bobcats are 21-11 in Big Sky games since 2012.
This off-season, the script flipped. Now Northern Arizona has the respect, albeit preseason respect, of the entire Big Sky. For the first time since Souers took over the Lumberjacks in 1998, NAU is the consensus selection among the BSC’s coaches and affiliated media to win the Big Sky Conference.
“The main focus is to not get caught up in the hype around our team,” said NAU quarterback Case Cookus, the FCS Freshman of the Year after throwing 37 touchdowns last fall. “We have a great thing going. Offensively, we are going to try to score as much as we can in each game. On defense, we are going to create as many turnovers as we can. It’s about not getting caught up, playing one game at a time and not focusing on all this preseason stuff. When you get caught up in that, you take a loss to one of the bottom teams in the league and that’s how you don’t fulfill expectations.”
In Souers’ 19 seasons at the helm, NAU has claimed just the 2003 conference title. NAU has qualified for the playoffs four times. It’s taken at least eight wins each time.
“Initially, when you see that stuff happen like the polls, as a coach, it gets you nervous,” Plough said. “You would probably rather be picked in the middle somewhere and have people sleeping on you. It’s a great honor that they put us there but as everyone knows, that doesn’t mean anything and won’t give us any wins. I think it’s great for our program that we are able to be up in that top echelon and be able to show ourselves that people do respect us but now we have to go earn it every day.”
Souers is the longest tenured coach at a single school in the league. Last season, he passed former Nevada head coach Chris Ault as the Big Sky’s all-time leader in conference victories (72). For the first time, his team is the preseason favorite.
“It’s humbling and it’s an honor to be recognized among the elite in this conference,” said Souers, who last led the Lumberjacks to the Big Sky title in 2003. “I love this conference and I have a great deal of respect for the coaches and the programs in the Big Sky. Will that help us win a game? No. Will that help galvanize our fan base, our alumni, the people who follow us? I hope so. If we do it right, we will use it for those reasons. But our football team has to maintain the hunger and the focus that we have demanded since the end of last year to improve to the level we have to be at.”
A season ago, no one knew what to expect from Northern Arizona after transfer quarterback Connor Brewer spurned the Lumberjacks. The former four-star in-state product declared his transfer from Arizona to NAU around the same time Souers and Plough went to installing the Lumberjacks’ new up-tempo offense. But Brewer decided to transfer to Virginia instead, leaving Northern Arizona high and dry.
Former Sacramento State head coach Steve Mooshagian goes way back with Souers. He is now the head coach at Venture College, the place Cookus spent the 2014 season as a redshirt from Thousand Oaks, California. Cookus came to Northern Arizona as an unknown. In Plough’s new offense — an attack Cookus calls “a pro-style offense just in a no-huddle” — the 6-foot-4 pocket passer showed his prodigious skills right away.
On NAU’s sixth play of the season, Cookus hit All-America wide receiver Emmanuel Butler for a 57-yard touchdown before the game was even three minutes old in a 34-28 win over Stephen F. Austin. Cookus hooked up with Butler two more times in Nacogdoches, Texas and a total of 15 times in 2015.
By the opening of conference play, Cookus threw four touchdowns in a 49-41 win over then No. 11 Montana State. During NAU’s four-game winning streak down the stretch, Cookus threw for 353 yards and four touchdowns in a 52-30 win over Weber State; 363 yards and seven touchdowns in a 63-21 win over Northern Colorado; and 407 yards and six touchdowns against Sacramento State. Cookus even threw for 350 yards and four touchdowns against Southern Utah’s vaunted defense in what amounted to a season-ending 49-41 loss to the rival Thunderbirds.
All told, Cookus completed 69 percent of his passes for 3,111 yards, 37 scores and just five interceptions to build an FCS-best 184.9 efficiency rating.
“He is super competitive, very confident but he’s a goofball, still very young,” Plough said. “He’s humble about who he is but he’s confident and he should be. The big thing him and I have talked about all off-season is there is going to be some expectations. He’s going to get some preseason stuff. The ability to recreate what he did last year is not going to happen. That kind of year doesn’t repeat itself individually. But great quarterbacks are defined by wins. The great quarterbacks are defined by the championships they win and what they do in the big games. If our record is better than 7-4 at the end of this season, I can say he improved.”
Cookus was the Big Sky’s preseason all-league quarterback, an honor previously reserved for conference royalty like Cameron Higgins, DeNarius McGhee, Vernon Adams and Dakota Prukop. Cookus has also landed on various preseason All-America teams, including earning a second-team nod from STATS.
“It’s very difficult to keep your head in that stuff. You don’t want to get too big of a head or focus too much on it,” Cookus said. “Preseason stuff, that’s from last season. We have to go to the playoffs before I’m worthy of any other awards.”
“It’s all people’s opinions. I like to think I’m one of the elite quarterbacks in the league and in FCS but my job as a quarterback is to get my playmakers the ball so I’m not worried about anything but that.”
And Northern Arizona is not worried about anything but affirming the predictions.
“Now we aren’t trying to prove anybody wrong,” Plough said. “Now we are trying to prove people right.”
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