Eastern Washington strikes early, holds off Northern Arizona rally in 31-26 victory

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FLAGSTAFF, Arizona – When Northern Arizona quarterback Case Cookus was forced to kick the game’s opening snap out of bounds near his end zone Saturday, the No. 18 Lumberjacks chalked it up as a self-inflicted wound.

Sixth-ranked Eastern Washington doled out the rest of the damage in a 31-26 nonconference win at the Skydome, including an injury to Cookus that sidelined the star QB most of a game that was billed the FCS Game of the Week.

EWU quarterback Gage Gubrud, another one of the FCS level’s top talents, was his usual self against one of the Big Sky Conference’s most experienced secondaries.

Gubrud completed 18 of 33 passes for 322 yards and four touchdowns, two in the opening minutes when the Eagles (2-0) jumped out to 14-0 lead, riding a defense that limited the big-play Lumberjacks (1-1).

For the second consecutive week Gubrud’s top target was Nsimba Webster, who hauled in seven passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns. The Eagles totaled 570 yards and committed just one turnover.

Gubrud often found favorable matchups in NAU’s man-to-man defense. His touchdown strikes to Webster were both over the top of the Lumberjacks’ secondary, but he also spread it out to nine receivers, including tight end Jayce Gilder on a short scoring play.

“They came out and they were pretty much what we thought they were and we saw on a film against UTEP,” Gubrud said. “We took advantage of that stuff.”

Second-year head coach Aaron Best earned his first win against a Top 25 program.

“This was a game against a playoff team from last year, and we got a win on their home field, in a playoff-like atmosphere,” Best said. “We used and needed all of our players. Whatever their role was, we told them to do as well in that role as they could and not be complacent in your role. These games are going to come down to the fourth quarter as they should.”

“It was a loss, unfortunately, to a really good team that is highly ranked,” NAU coach Jerome Souers said. “As bad as we played at times, at times we made some good plays against a really good team. If you look at where we need to go, I think they showed us some things we really need to shore up and we will when we get the opportunity.”

Late in the first quarter, Cookus, a first-team All-Big Sky selection, strolled off the field in pain favoring his shoulder after getting hit. He didn’t return.

Second-string quarterback Daniel Bridge-Gadd, a transfer from Washington, performed admirably in Cookus’ absence. The speedy QB passed for 231 yards and three touchdowns, including late a strike in the closing minutes to cut EWU’s lead to 31-26.

On EWU’s ensuing series, running back Sam McPherson bolted 94 yards to NAU’s 4-yard line. The Eagles took a series of knees to end the game.

EWU’s defense, which found itself on the field a lot after the offense’s quick start, gave up just 13 points in the first three quarters. It bent at times, surrendering 285 passing yards, but it seldom broke, forcing three field-goal attempts after tightening up in the red zone.

The Eagles’ secondary held NFL prospect receiver Emmanuel Butler to four catches and 76 yards. EWU also brought the heat, totaling five sacks.

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