There were too many turnovers, too many missed chances and one crucial injury.
The Lumberjacks (3-2, 1-1 Big Sky Conference) saw their season take a sharp turn for the worse after Saturday's 21-14 loss to host Eastern Washington (4-2, 3-1).
NAU quarterback Michael Herrick threw three interceptions in the first half, including two around the end zone before being injured on the final play in the second quarter. He wouldn't return and remained on the sideline with an ice pack on his left elbow.
NAU coach Jerome Souers said Herrick could have played in the second half but hoped to "shake things up" by inserting backup quarterback Chasen Stangel.
Regardless, the loss served as a major blow to the Jacks' chances at their first Big Sky title since 2003, though Souers isn't counting his team out.
"I promise this: It's a crazy race and it's far from over. We're not out of anything," Souers said in a broadcast interview.
Both teams traded turnovers throughout the game and neither fully capitalized on the shifts in momentum. NAU safety Taylor Julio intercepted quarterback Bo Mitchell on the Eagles' first possession and Jack center Kris Poindexter -- filling in for an injured Jeff Hines -- botched the snap on the following drive for a 17-yard loss and the possession resulted in a punt.
On the Eagles' first play on their next drive, running back Taiwan Jones fumbled and the Jacks recovered on Eastern Washington's 17-yard line. In the next play, Herrick was intercepted near the end zone and the two teams continued their comedy of errors throughout the rest of the game.
Eastern Washington, though, managed two successful drives for touchdowns, one coming after Herrick's first interception, and built a 14-0 lead at halftime.
"It was a sloppy game coming out of the first half, but I thought our guys collected themselves and came out with a better second half and gave ourselves a chance to win," Souers said.
The Eagles put the ball on the ground again in their opening possession in the third quarter and Stangel led the Jacks down the field, capped off by his 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Nick Larson.
For Stangel, a redshirt junior, it was the first serious playing time of his collegiate career.
"There were nerves, some butterflies. It felt like I was in high school again because it was my first real action since high school," Stangel said. "It was surreal at first but it quickly changed and I was back into it after one snap."
Stangel's touchdown pass was NAU's only offensive score of the game as the running game was shut down (39 yards on 37 attempts) and Stangel routinely had to scramble to avoid the Eagles' constant pass rush. He finished the game 9-of-17 passing for 90 yards.
"We just didn't make the play we needed to in the red zone," Souers said. "I thought our defense did a great job at keeping us in the ballgame and it took take courage with some of the situation they were put in."
NAU's defense forced five turnovers but much of its effort was negated by the Jacks' problems on offense.
NAU turned the ball over on downs three times in the second half. After the offense stalled on the Eagles' 3-yard line, NAU linebacker Scott McKeever forced Jones to fumble and NAU recovered for its only other touchdown of the game.
"They kept us in the game in the second half," Stangel said of the defense. "They were giving us opportunities to tie it up and win the game."
Although the Jacks' defense continued to be the strength of the team, the unit still felt like it could have done more to come away with a win. Jones, who led the Football Championship Series in all-purprose yards heading into the game, was bottled up by NAU, rushing 16 times for 48 yards. Mitchell, though, was 20-of-26 passing for 288 yards and three touchdowns.
"It's pretty frustrating but it is a team sport," linebacker Cody Dowd said about the offense's turnovers. "On defense, we gave up too many deep balls and we just can't allow that."
The loss ends the Jacks' four-game road trip and they'll play inside the Walkup Skydome for the first time since Sept. 2 next Saturday against Montana State.
"I don't ever remember (not having a home game) for five weeks," Souers said. "Sometimes it feels unfair to the kids but it is what it is."
Jacob May can be reached at email@example.com or 556-2257.