NORMAL — Illinois State seems to get the healthy seasons of Case Cookus.
And the Redbirds will need to better handle the Northern Arizona gunslinger Saturday in a 6:30 p.m. nonconference game at Hancock Stadium than they did in 2017.
“He’s the best guy I’ve seen since (Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy) Garoppolo at this level,” ISU coach Brock Spack said. “You want to see an (future) NFL quarterback, this is one. He throws people open. He’s very accurate.”
Cookus was national Freshman of the Year in 2015 but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the fourth game of his sophomore year. He returned to riddle the Redbirds for 380 yards passing and three touchdowns in a 37-16 victory over ISU in 2017 in Flagstaff.
A broken collarbone ended Cookus’ 2018 season in the second game. Again, he has come back with authority. Cookus has passed for 1,020 yards and eight touchdowns as Northern Arizona has won two of its first three. The lone loss was a 65-41 shootout against Arizona.
ISU’s only defeat also came to an FBS program, Northern Illinois. The 10th-ranked Redbirds also are 2-1.
“He (Cookus) can throw that thing. He can put it where it’s supposed to be,” said Redbird free safety Luther Kirk. “It will be a great challenge for us. We just want to keep rolling and keep the energy high, do what we’ve been doing from that start.”
The Redbird defense has had success pressuring quarterbacks with 14 sacks thus far. End Romeo McKnight leads that charge with four.
ISU will employ frequent nickel packages (with Clayton Isbell as the fifth defensive back) and maybe even some dime looks (with Trenton Hatfield or Mike Gardner as the sixth secondary member).
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“It’s pull the pin and let it go. They don’t have any interest in the controlled passing game,” Spack said. “They like throwing the ball downfield, and they’re really good at it. You have to decide the number of rushers you’re going to have as opposed to how many you keep in coverage.”
The top Lumberjacks’ receivers are Brandon Porter (19 for 319 yards) and Hendrix Johnson (15 for 250). Another weapon is place-kicker Luis Aguilar, who is 8 for 8 on field goals and perfect on 15 extra-point tries.
Northern Arizona coach Chris Ball is concerned with a rushing attack that has produced 114.7 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry.
“We’ve got to work on doing a better job running the football,” Ball said. “It’s not horrible, just inconsistent. We obviously got to put it in the end zone, and it’s just part of the running game – the inconsistency.”
The Redbirds have struggled through the air. But James Robinson, a Walter Payton Award watch list member along with Cookus, has rushed for 340 yards with quarterback Brady Davis at 145 and backup tailback Jeff Proctor at 143.
Davis has passed for 348 yards while completing 41.5 percent of his tosses.
“We have to score touchdowns,” said Spack. “It will be very difficult to keep them off the board.”
There will be a halftime fireworks show. A pregame concert featuring country artist Eric Chesser starts at 4 p.m. in parking lot G82.