BILLINGS — A clash of Big Sky Conference quarterback titans never materialized, but Gage Gubrud and Eastern Washington prevailed in an early-season matchup of two of the league's top teams.
Gubrud continued his mastery of EWU’s offense in a 31-26 (nonconference) victory at Northern Arizona on Saturday. Gubrud put up 402 yards of offense with four touchdown and no interceptions as the Eagles moved to 2-0.
He passed for 322 yards and rushed for 80 more. It wouldn’t be fair, though, to say Gubrud “outdueled” NAU’s Case Cookus.
Cookus was knocked out of the game with an injury in the first quarter. There were few details on the injury, but Cookus reportedly had to leave the Walkup Skydome to be treated.
Before he was hurt, Cookus, the Big Sky’s first-team all-conference QB in 2017, had thrown for 54 yards with an interception.
Gubrud, the league’s preseason offensive MVP for this year, continues to put up huge numbers. It was his 18th game with at least 300 yards passing, and his 14th over 400 yards of offense. He also eclipsed the 10,000 career yard barrier during the victory.
Gubrud now ranks fourth in EWU history with 83 career touchdown passes. On Monday, was named Big Sky Conference offensive player of the week for the second consecutive week.
“Gage led us and will continue to lead us, and we’ll ride him as long as we can,” Best said in an EWU press release. “He had a cast of characters who played really well around him, but you are only as good as your quarterback no matter what offense you run.”
It was a game between the No. 1- and No. 3-ranked teams in the Big Sky Conference preseason polls. With NAU trying to get the ball back late, the game was sealed as EWU's Sam McPherson broke off a 94-yard run to the Lumberjacks' 2, where the Eagles ran out the clock.
When asked by reporters if he had a details on Cookus’ injury, NAU coach Jerome Souers said, “I don’t. I know they took him to the medical facility to have him checked. He was in quite a bit of pain, but I don’t really know.”
Montana’s Dante Olson, a junior linebacker from Medford, Oregon, was named the Big Sky’s defensive player of the week for the second straight week. Olson, who was named honorable mention for the STATS FCS national defensive player of the week last Monday, won the national accolade this week, too.
Olson tallied 16 takedowns, 3.5 tackles for loss — two of which were sacks — with a forced fumble and a pass breakup in his second career start to lead the Grizzlies to a decisive, 48-16 win over Drake on Saturday.
"It's awesome, those awards and stuff like that," Olson said Monday before deferring to how he's focused on how the team is 2-0. "It's cool how it happened. I'm obviously excited about it.
"Two weeks ago I was focused on getting a win for the team, playing a great team in Northern Iowa. The focus has changed now this week to Western Illinois. Coach (Bobby) Hauck preaches team, being a team and winning. I'm not too worried about the awards, but it's pretty sweet."
Olson's 16 tackles in one game marks the sixth-highest outing out of any FCS defender so far this season.
The last Grizzly to win a national player of the week award was former Montana linebacker Connor Strahm who had 16 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble against Northern Arizona last season.
Olson has 29 total tackles through the first two games, which is the third-highest mark in the FCS and leads the Big Sky Conference. Olson is also third nationally in sacks per game, averaging 1.5 sacks through the first two games.
Even before this week's awards were announced, Hauck knew Olson had a chance to win the award again.
"Two sacks, three and half tackles for loss, caused fumble, that's a pretty big day," Hauck said of Olson's performance on Saturday. "He might have a chance to be nominated again for the league award. He had a good day. He's obviously off to a great start to the season. We need him to be that guy."
Head coach Jody Sears missed Sacramento State’s season opener — a 55-7 home victory over St. Francis (Ill.) on Sept. 1 — while serving a one-game suspension. The Sacramento Bee reported that Sears was suspended by the NCAA because the Hornets played an ineligible player for one down during the 2016 season.
The Bee reported that assistant coach Paul Wulff, the former head coach at Eastern Washington and Washington State, served as interim coach against St. Francis.
Sears returned to the sideline on Saturday, and the Hornets proved to be a tough matchup for FBS San Diego State until the Aztecs ultimately prevailed 28-14.
Sacramento State was ahead 14-13 entering the fourth quarter but gave up 15 unanswered points.
"I thought the kids played their hearts out,” Sears was quoted in a press release. “They were a little bigger and stronger than we were but I really loved the way we came out and played hard. They weren't awestruck and intimidated."
The Hornets will travel to play Big Sky foe Northern Colorado this Saturday, but the game will not count toward the conference standings.
It’s Pac-12 week
Sac State almost gave the Big Sky its third win over the Football Bowl Subdivision this season, on the heels of UC Davis beating San Jose State 44-38 and NAU whipping UTEP 30-10 last week.
Four other Big Sky squads get their chance this Saturday against the Pac-12: UC Davis travels to Stanford, Eastern Washington visits Washington State, Southern Utah plays at Arizona, and Idaho State makes a trip to Cal.
Portland State lost 62-14 at Oregon last week.
So far this year, the Big Sky is 2-6 against FBS competition. Nationally, the FCS has won six games against the FBS in the first two weeks of the season. There are 111 FCS vs. FBS games scheduled this year.
After a big 10-place jump, Montana (2-0) fell one spot to No. 15 this week in the latest STATS FCS Top 25 poll following its win over Drake.
As for the rest of the Big Sky, Eastern Washington (2-0) held steady at No. 6 after beating NAU, as nine of the top 10 remained intact. Weber State (1-1) fell one spot to No. 11 following a 24-17 victory over Cal Poly, while NAU (1-1) slipped two positions to No. 20.
UC Davis (2-0) made its way into the poll at No. 23 after beating San Diego 54-21. Big Sky teams receiving votes included Sacramento State (2-0), Montana State (1-1), Idaho (1-1) and Southern Utah (0-2).
Nationally, North Dakota State (2-0), James Madison (1-1), South Dakota State (1-0), North Carolina A&T (3-0) and Sam Houston State (1-0) made up the top five for the second straight week, though NC A&T leapfrogged SHSU for the No. 4 ranking.
Around the league
UC Davis P Daniel Whelan, with seven punts for 285 yards vs. San Diego, was named Big Sky special teams player of the week. … Gubrud and EWU are averaging 623.5 yards of offense per game, which ranks No. 1 in the FCS. … A year after earning the Big Sky’s automatic bid to the postseason, Southern Utah risks starting 0-3 this week as it faces Arizona on the road. … The Big Sky/Missouri Valley challenge continues this week as Montana visits Western Illinois, Northern Arizona travels to Missouri State and Weber State hosts South Dakota. Through two weeks, the Big Sky is 2-3 vs. the MVFC.
The Missoulian’s Amie Just contributed to this story