While this past weekend brought a wide range of emotions for the Lumberjacks, the entire month of November seemed off for Northern Arizona (7-4, 6-2 Big Sky).
First the ejection of their All-American quarterback led to a two-point loss in Montana, with a dramatic one-point victory back on their home field a week later setting up a de facto Big Sky Conference title game in Utah.
The 28-point loss left a berth in the FCS playoffs a hopeful result rather than a forgone conclusion, but the resulting first-round home game against San Diego (9-2, 8-0 Pioneer) preceded the more surprising news of head coach Jerome Souers’ renewal on Monday by NAU President Rita Cheng for at least another season.
“I feel like we are rejuvenated. It has been a long haul and the guys are tired, but there is a sense we have been re-energized by the news and the opportunity,” Souers said. “We don’t want to let this slip. This has been a gift given to us, be it divine intervention or what, but we are not going to waste it. We want to show Flagstaff, we want to show the president, we want to show anybody that comes to the game that we are going to be worth following and it was worth taking a chance on us to keep what we are doing alive.”
While a six-game win streak preceded the disappointment at Montana, an 0-2 start coupled with the initial news of 2017 being his final season at Northern Arizona was a rough beginning for Souers. As the drama continued, the head coach and his team simply found a way to their fifth seven-win season in the past six and their second playoff bid since 2013.
“It wasn’t without challenges. A person has to act on faith that things happen for a reason and sometimes that's the only explanation we get in life. I believe wholeheartedly that our team has worked hard, and our coaches and our team have kept a humble heart and done the right thing,” Souers said. “(They) stayed focused on the mission and loyalty to the university, and with that comes a reward. We didn't know it was going to happen this way, but I believe we were rewarded for that.”
Now Northern Arizona looks for just its second FCS playoff win in school history, and the first since beating No. 1 seed McNeese State in 2003, against a San Diego Toreros team seeking the same. A win a year ago brought San Diego and the Pioneer Football League its first and only FCS playoff berth, knocking off the Big Sky Conference’s Cal Poly Mustangs in San Luis Obispo.
SEEKING A STRONGER PERFORMANCE
Souers and defensive coordinator Andy Thompson stressed the Toreros' excellence in fundamentals, with few mistakes and strong discipline paving the way to nine wins, and each coach highlighted the Lumberjacks' need to pick up their play compared to recent weeks.
After allowing just 20 points or less in six of seven games, Northern Arizona allowed its past two opponents to combine for 85 points. Montana State and Southern Utah also combined for 504 rushing yards, with its two quarterbacks each rushing for a pair of touchdowns in their respective games.
“It is time for our program to get back to playing a great game for 60 minutes of offense, defense and the kicking game,” Souers said. “I think that second quarter last Saturday really exposed some of the deficiencies we have in our kicking game, and we are doing things to change that this week. I think every person in our program is committed to showing a better version of our team."
Hoping for its first Big Sky title since the 2003 season, Northern Arizona saw its hopes dashed with Southern Utah recovering a pair of fumbles on back-to-back kickoffs. As the Thunderbirds rolled up a 20-6 lead just four minutes after trailing 6-3, the Lumberjacks’ struggles snowballed into a 45-7 run for Southern Utah deep into the fourth quarter.
“Our players didn’t need a whole lot of refocusing, this is what they have been playing for,” Souers said. “We played for a conference championship and we didn’t get it, but a secondary goal to what we are doing is to be in the playoffs and we have achieved that goal.”
BEST OF BOTH SIDES
San Diego enters Saturday with one of the FCS’ best offenses behind the work of quarterback Anthony Lawrence, receiver Justin Priest, tight end Ross Dwelley and running back Emilio Martinez.
However, its star comes on the defensive side of the ball, where senior defensive end Jonathan Petersen sits just four sacks away from setting a new FCS mark for career sacks. The nation’s leader with 13 sacks and 20 tackles for loss this season, Petersen’s presence will make life tough for Case Cookus and Northern Arizona’s own top offense, ranked No. 14 in yardage and No. 26 in scoring.
“San Diego is a very good opponent,” Cookus said. “We like our matchup across the board, but we are just excited to have the opportunity to be in the playoffs and continue our season.”
PLAYING A KEY ROLE
Set to be Northern Arizona’s associate head coach going forward, in addition to his roles as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, Thompson remained humble following his promotion announced by Cheng.
“It’s a nice honor and really a little bit awkward with all the hard work the other assistant coaches do,” Thompson said. “The other defensive coaches, I could not do any part of my job without those guys, so it was humbling and at the same time exciting to get the chance to be back and coach the players. They are a good group and I am excited for the future.”
It’ll be on Thompson, his No. 16-ranked passing defense and the rest of the Lumberjacks to slow San Diego’s balanced attack that averages 39.0 points per game, second best in the nation.
Further complicating matters, Northern Arizona’s excellence in the takeaways, primarily through the air, might be harder than other matchups. San Diego threw just three interceptions this season and turned the ball over just eight times total. Northern Arizona picked off 16 passes this year, one of the nation’s best totals, including at least one pick in nine of 11 games this season. Only meetings with Arizona and Montana State did not include an interception, with each of those games including fewer than 20 passes attempted against Northern Arizona’s defense.