FLAGSTAFF — Sophomore Case Cookus found junior Jonathan Baldwin and freshman Matthew Kempton for touchdown strikes, but the Northern Arizona football team fell short in their home opener, 38-20, to Western Illinois on Saturday.
The Lumberjacks are 0-2 heading into their only bye week of the season next weekend.
“I’m not happy with where we are, but I like the locker room,” said head coach Jerome Souers. “We've had two tough losses back to back. Their resolve has impressed me."
A week after putting up 562 yards of offense against Arizona, NAU’s offense struggled against a stifling Western Illinois defense, putting up only 278 yards. The Lumberjacks’ struggles could be attributed to gaining just 57 net yards on the ground.
The Lumberjacks’ defense forced two turnovers — both coming in the opening quarter. Junior Kam’ron Johnson recorded NAU’s first pick of the season on Western Illinois’ second possession and sophomore Khalil Dorsey also notched an interception two possessions later.
The Fighting Leathernecks stunned the crowd of 9,053 when Jaelon Acklin took a sweep 63 yards to the endzone less than two minutes into the game. Along with NAU’s interceptions, Western Illinois also picked off Cookus in a turnover-filled first quarter.
After Western Illinois extended its lead to 10-0, freshman Stone Smartt put the Lumberjacks on the board with 5:34 remaining before the half with a five-yard touchdown rush. The Fighting Leathernecks strung together an impressive drive to cap the half going 79 yards in 10 plays, but they were almost stopped at the goal line with time expiring. Needing four plays to punch it in from three yards, the Lumberjacks’ defense nearly pulled off what would have been a critical goal line stop.
NAU forced Western Illinois into a punt on the first drive of the second half, but Cookus had the ball knocked out of his hands on a sack on the ensuing drive and the Fighting Leathernecks’ Eric Carrera jumped on it in the end zone to push the visitors’ lead to 24-7. The Lumberjacks had an answer though on their next drive with Cookus finding Baldwin streaking down the middle for a 30-yard score. However, NAU had its extra point blocked.
Western Illinois struck right back with Acklin scoring for the second time on Saturday — this time on a 38-yard reception from Sean McGuire — putting NAU in a 31-13 hole going into the final quarter. Cookus fired a dart into Kempton for a seven-yard touchdown that temporarily brought NAU within two scores at 31-20 with 13:17 left in the game. But the Leathernecks milked the clock for a 10-play 62-yard touchdown drive spanning 5:20 to cap the scoring.
Cookus finished the game 18-for-35 for 221 yards and two touchdowns with junior William Morehand leading NAU with four receptions and 65 yards in his season debut.
The Fighting Leathernecks totaled 417 yards of offense with a near split between 207 rushing yards and 210 passing yards.
Junior Wes Sutton paced the Lumberjack defense with a career-high 11 tackles while juniors Maurice Davison and Quentin Robinson and senior Byron Evans each tallied seven tackles. Senior Clarence Smith and sophomore Taylor Powell each were credited with half a sack.
NAU returns to the field on Saturday, Sept. 23 at Cal Poly following its bye week. Kickoff is 6 p.m. in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
Information provided by Northern Arizona Athletics.