(STATS) - For the first time in its 11-year history as a member of the Big Sky, Northern Colorado won it conference opener. It beat the team pegged by both the media and the coaches to win the conference crown despite again struggling mightily to defend the pass.
It's not going to get any easier for the Bears on Saturday, as they now visit fourth-ranked Eastern Washington, the FCS' top passing team.
Northern Colorado (3-1, 1-0) opened this season with a feeling of optimism after returning 17 starters from last year's six-win team - the program's most since it was Division I-AA school in 2003. It set a program FCS-record 687 yards in a 55-52 win at Abilene Christian on Sept. 10 before falling 47-21 to Colorado State of the FBS in its final nonconference tuneup.
The Bears caught a bit of a break in last weekend's Big Sky opener with Case Cookus, the 2015 STATS FCS Freshman of the Year, out with a shoulder injury for Northern Arizona. They pulled out a 21-18 victory, but it was hardly a thing of beauty.
Northern Colorado was outgained 493-263 in total yards while picking up just 40 after halftime. The defense was on its heels most of the second half before coming up with a pair of huge takeaways, recovering two NAU inside its own 5-yard-line in the fourth quarter to escape.
"They're just playing together," Bears coach Earnest Collins said. "It's leadership. We got some young leaders and some old leaders. It's the continuity and togetherness and the camaraderie of our team is a lot better than it's been in the past."
Collins likes the direction his team is heading but realizes it has plenty to clean up, especially on defense.
Northern Colorado is 12th in the 13-team Big Sky in total defense, allowing 507.8 yards per game, and has routinely been shredded through the air. It ranks 119th out of 125 FCS schools in pass defense at 324.5 yards per game and is one of only seven teams without an interception.
None of that bodes well for trying to contain Gage Gubrud, Cooper Kupp and the high-flying Eagles (4-1, 2-0).
Gubrud joined Kupp on the STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year Watch List on Tuesday after passing for a career-high 486 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions in last Saturday's 63-30 win over UC Davis - Eastern Washington's highest-scoring game since 2001. The sophomore quarterback leads the FCS with 1,916 passing yards, 18 touchdowns and 2,191 total yards - 673 more than the next-closest individual.
With a nine-yard pass to Kupp in the second quarter, Kupp set the Division I record for career receiving yards. The senior, who wound up catching 12 passes for 274 yards and two touchdowns, enters with 5,417 receiving yards. The 2015 STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year also has a Division I-record 63 touchdown catches and his 352 career receptions are second all-time in the FCS to Elon's Terrell Hudgins' 395.
The Bears are no stranger to Kupp's exploits.
Kupp set a school record with 20 receptions for a career-best 275 yards and three TDs in last October's 43-41 victory as EWU improved to 8-0 in the series since the Bears joined the Big Sky.
The Eagles' Jordan Dascalo hit a 44-yard field goal as time expired after Northern Colorado's Michael McCauley had a pair of touchdown catches in a 49-second span to put the Bears ahead with 1:23 to play.
"It was a battle last year, it was a grinding tough battle here in 2014 and it was a battle down there in our national title year in 2010. It seems like we play competitive battles with them every time," EWU coach Beau Baldwin said. "I think coach Collins has a spirit, attitude and a real toughness about him in a great way. I really respect him, and his team emulates him - there is a toughness, a grit and no fear. He's done a great job with that program."
The ground game has been a big part of the Bears' early success, averaging 192 yards to rank third in the Big Sky.
Sophomore Trae Riek has amassed 350 yards in the last three games while averaging 5.1 per attempt. He carried the ball 12 times for 62 yards in last season's matchup and could be primed for a fourth straight 100-yard game going up against an EWU defense that is allowing an average of 218.8 run yards in its last four contests.
"The thing that we learned from last year is that our kids are starting to believe and understand that we can play with people in this conference," Collins said. "We just have to do what we're supposed to do and do our job."