Lumberjacks now decide own fate in pursuit of playoff spot
By Brian Gosset
Entering Oct. 27′s game in Greeley, Colo. against the University of Northern Colorado (UNC), No. 13 Northern Arizona University (NAU) sat alongside No. 1 Eastern Washington (EWU) and No. 11 Cal Poly as the remaining undefeated schools in the Big Sky Conference, a game behind both in the win column.
The Lumberjacks had to take care of business against the Bears in chilly Greeley to keep pace with the two in pursuit of their first conference title in nearly a decade.
After scoring their first points late in the second quarter in last week’s win, the Lumberjacks continued their struggles in the first half this week. On the first play from scrimmage, senior Austin Shanks took a pass from quarterback Cary Grossart 40 yards, but lost a fumble. On their next possession, Grossart’s pass was intercepted by UNC’s Jordan Bible for NAU’s second turnover in a mere four plays.
Once again, the team was led by their second-ranked defense through the game, but it seemed as the stars were aligning midway through the final quarter. Just 632 miles away in Cedar City, Utah, EWU was in a fierce battle with the Thunderbirds of Southern Utah (SUU). Also in the fourth, the teams were locked at 27, with SUU driving late in the quarter.
In Greeley, a 91-yard UNC drive had just produced the game’s first offensive touchdown to take give the Bears a 10–9 lead with 4:52 remaining. Just as NAU got the ball back, SUU made the game-winning field goal with three seconds left for the 30–27 upset over the top ranked team in the Football Championship Division (FCS).
Not as if head coach Jerome Souers and the team knew about the score, but the Lumberjacks’ offense finally woke up. The Lumberjacks would respond with their best offensive drive of the day, a 17-play, 76-yard drive capped off by an 18-yard field goal, kicker Andy Wilder’s second game-winning field goal of the season. With Cal Poly falling to Sacramento State later in the day, NAU moved into sole possession of first place in the Big Sky.
“It feels really great, but the win is temporary. We got Idaho State next weekend, and we got a lot to work on as a team,” said junior defensive back Lucky Dozier. “We messed up some things on the defensive and offensive end, so we just have to get back on Monday and work.”
Two games remain for both Cal Poly and NAU before facing off in Flagstaff on the final week of the regular season. If both teams can win those first two games, it will set up an epic clash at the Walkup Skydome, with the Big Sky title and automatic bid into the postseason on the line.
However, the Mustangs can’t look ahead because if any team wants to bounce back from a loss, it will be EWU when they play host next week. If Cal Poly can win, they will take on last place Idaho State before heading to Flagstaff.
As for NAU, they travel to Idaho State next week. Even though the Bengals are last in the conference, NAU has struggled on offense the past two weeks. The following week, NAU will return home for the final two weeks of the season, as it hosts SUU, who may be riding high after their defeat of EWU.
“We need to get healthy. We’re dinged up right now, and we got a lot of guys trying to step in, so consistency is lacking, but we just have to clean up our quality of plays,” Souers said.
With EWU, Cal Poly and Montana State all having a loss in conference under their belts, there’s still that chance of a four-way tie in the conference at season’s end if NAU were to slip up.
It’s there for the taking for the Lumberjacks. All they have to do is clean up their offense, continue to dominant on defense and take care of business.