FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The matchup drips with intrigue, strength against strength.
As Illinois State brings its No. 2 nationally ranked pass defense into the Walkup Skydome for a 6 p.m. (Central) nonconference matchup Saturday, Northern Arizona’s No. 8 passing offense will be waiting.
“They have an excellent quarterback. Offensively, they are very, very good,” ISU coach Brock Spack said. “They are easily the best test we’ve had so far in defense, very athletic.”
At 2-2, Northern Arizona boasts sophomore quarterback Case Cookus. The national Freshman of the Year in 2015, Cookus suffered a season-ending injury early in 2016. He has passed for 1,204 yards and nine touchdowns this season.
“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” said Redbird standout cornerback Davontae Harris. “The quarterback has really good ball placement, the receivers run really good routes and their timing is pretty good as well. Our focus has been on getting out of our breaks, going to break up the ball and make plays.”
Averaging 318.8 passing yards, the Lumberjacks feature an elite receiver in senior Elijah Marks, who has 31 receptions for 488 yards along with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
The Redbird pass defense has surrendered just one touchdown through the air and a 113.8-yard average. ISU also ranks second among 123 FCS programs in total defense (166.8 yards) and third in scoring defense (8.8 points).
“It’ll be one of the better ones we see,” Northern Arizona coach Jerome Souers said of the Redbird defense. “They are physical and eat up a lot of space. It is on us to try to identify what they are in, what their intentions are, whatever posture they are going to play.
“If they are going to be conservative we have got to be patient. If they are going to choke us out, then we have got to be smart in what we are going to do with it.”
The ISU defense will be without third-leading tackler Brannon Barry for the first half Saturday because of a targeting penalty last week.
"This team will punish you for not taking care of the ball and managing the chains," Souers said. "They are really well trained and well schooled in what they do. We have got to be productive on first and second down."
At 4-0 and ranked seventh and 11th in the two major FCS polls, the Redbirds need to prove themselves in a strange venue, according to Spack.
“It’s going to be really tough,” said the ISU coach. “It might serve as a good test and a good experience to play in a really unfamiliar place if we want to be a playoff team.”
The Lumberjacks’ defense has not been nearly as stout, surrendering 32.5 points and 318.8 passing yards per game.
The Redbirds have proven capable offensively. Quarterback Jake Kolbe has passed for 1,069 yards and six touchdowns, tailbacks James Robinson and Markel Smith have combined for 520 yards and receivers Spencer Schnell and Christian Gibbs have hauled in a total of 38 passes.
One of the Lumberjacks’ losses came to Western Illinois, 38-20, also in Flagstaff.
Spack did not speak directly to WIU coach Charlie Fisher, but said “our assistants have talked to some of their assistants. We got our questions answered.”
Northern Arizona announced after its second game that Souers’ 20th season would be his last with the proclaimed objective to celebrate Souers’ contributions to the university over the remainder of the campaign.
The game is the last in the Missouri Valley-Big Sky Challenge. The Valley has won five of the previous seven matchups between the elite FCS conferences.