Lumberjacks stay hot on homecoming, tally sixth straight victory in defensive battle
By Cody Bashore
After nearly a full half of scoreless football, junior receiver Nick Cole and senior quarterback Cary Grossart hooked up for a 17-yard touchdown to break the game’s scoreless tie and send the Lumberjacks to the locker room relieved after finally breaking through.
“Cary read it beautifully and put the ball where he needed to. Nick made a great catch and finished it in the endzone,” said head coach Jerome Souers. “That was a huge play. It was knotted up and it didn’t even look like we were going to get to a field goal.”
With 1:30 left in the second quarter, the touchdown capped off a defensive half of football that included 11 punts between the two teams, but would be the first seven of 21 unanswered points for the No. 15/16 Lumberjacks en route to a 21–7 homecoming victory against the University of California-Davis (UCD) Aggies.
“We were trying to run it and then dink it and dunk it,” Grossart said. “To get a throw down the field in the redzone like that was kind of an exciting play. I think it got the fans into it; it got our team into it.”
The victory marked six straight for NAU (6–1, 4–0 Big Sky Conference), the longest winning streak since the Lumberjacks strung six together in 2008.
Unlike the previous week in North Dakota, NAU’s offense failed to move the ball successfully early on and relied on its defense to keep the game even.
“I was excited to see that dimension of our football team show itself,” Souers said. “Sometimes our offense has carried our team and tonight our defense carried the team, got three turnovers and a number of three and outs.”
Through halftime, the Lumberjacks defense had stopped the Aggies on all seven third down attempts and finished the game 3-of-15 in such situations, with the three conversions coming in the fourth quarter. Coming into the game with just 10 sacks all season, NAU sacked UCD seven times on the night to help force the Aggies into numerous third-and-longs.
NAU’s most important stops of the game came with less than six minutes remaining in the game in the shadow of its own endzone. Following a Grossart interception, the Aggies found themselves with a third-and-1 at the Lumberjack 5-yard line.
“That’s the game on the line. That turns into a score; it’s a whole different deal,” Souers said.
NAU stuffed UCD for no gain on both third and fourth down, taking over on downs to run more time off the clock.
“That’s will; it’s all will,” said junior defensive tackle Tim Wilkinson, who totaled nine tackled and two sacks for the night. “Guys were tired, but still we fought through it and had a second wind and we got the job done.”
UCD’s only points came early in the fourth quarter on a two-yard run by freshman running back Courtney Williams. The Aggies had been stopped on third-and-1 at the Lumberjack 17-yard line, but a personal foul call on junior safety Lucky Dozier’s hit to break up a potential touchdown gave the Aggies new life.
Dozier’s day had been busy prior to the questionable penalty, intercepting his fourth pass of the season and recovering a forced fumble, both in the third quarter, on back to back Aggie possessions.
NAU failed to take advantage of the interception, but turned the Dozier fumble recovery into points five plays later. Grossart hit junior running back Zach Bauman on a shovel pass that went 25 yards down the left sideline for the Lumberjacks second score of the game.
The infusion of life Bauman’s play produced carried over to the Lumberjacks next possession after the Aggies punted back five plays later. On the first play of the drive, senior wide receiver Austin Shanks took an end around 78 yards for another NAU touchdown.
“Really all I had to do was just run,” Shanks said. “Everybody else was just blocking and had it set up.”
The 14 points in just 1:41 essentially put the game away for the Lumberjacks.
“He’s an electrifying runner, really exciting to watch. You saw his speed up the left sideline on the reverse,” Souers said. “He hit that extra gear that he has, shows why he’s such a lethal threat.”
Shanks finished the game with 112 all-purpose yards despite touching the ball just five times. Despite the slow start, Bauman finished the game with 122 yards rushing on 23 carries and added five catches for 51 yards and a touchdown. Grossart too finished with respectable numbers, hitting 18-of-32 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns.
More impressive were the stats for the Lumberjack defensive, where two and a half of the seven team sacks came from junior defensive tackle Marc Thompson. NAU also finished with 10 tackles for loss, led by junior defensive end Quentin Kantaris who also totaled a sack and a half.
“That’s big ups to the D-line. As long as they’re getting there, as long as we’re giving them time to get there, that’s all that matters,” Dozier said. “If that quarterback is holding that ball, our D-line is going to come sooner or later.”
The defensive effort did not go unnoticed by those on the offensive side of the ball.
“Seven sacks, that doesn’t happen very often,” Grossart said. “I’m just proud of our guys on the other side of the ball, I really am.”
The Lumberjacks will look to win their seventh straight, something the program hasn’t done since 1958, when they travel to the University of Northern Colorado (2–5, 1–3 BSC) next Saturday for the first of two consecutive road games.