Stumbling through a disastrous second quarter, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (7-4, 6-2 Big Sky) never recovered in Saturday’s 48-20 loss at the Southern Utah Thunderbirds (9-2, 7-1).
With the win, Southern Utah clinched a share of the Big Sky Conference title, the automatic bid to the FCS playoffs and the HintonBurdick Grand Canyon Trophy, while Northern Arizona will be left awaiting its fate during Sunday’s FCS selection show.
Fumbling a kickoff with the score tied 6-6, Northern Arizona fell behind 13-6 three plays later as Patrick Tyler broke through for a 1-yard touchdown. With the ensuing kickoff bouncing off of Northern Arizona’s Tristen Vance, Southern Utah’s Tyler scored in another three plays, breaking up the right side for a 23-yard touchdown.
“Our kids played hard, but we didn’t play well and at times it really showed,” said Souers, who potentially coached his final game with the Lumberjacks. “When you play a team at the caliber of Southern Utah, then every special teams play like that has a multiplying effect. It really was disappointing, our kids kept coming back and I thought they worked real hard at it, but the game just kind of got out of hand.”
Northern Arizona’s offense and quarterback Case Cookus finally returned to the field with 1:13 left in the first quarter for the first time since leading 6-3. Unable to string together more than one first down, NAU found itself in its biggest deficit since Sept. 9 against Western Illinois.
Responding with a 10-play, 48-yard drive, Southern Utah went ahead 27-6 on a 3-yard touchdown run for Jay Green. Running the ball on eight of the 10 plays, Southern Utah only put the ball in the air with Tyler when they needed to.
SPECIAL TEAMS DISASTER
While Northern Arizona’s two turnovers directly led to 14 points for Southern Utah, the Lumberjacks’ special teams struggles throughout the day continued to cripple their playoff hopes.
First-half kickoff returns of 44 and 54 yards, as well as a punt return of 35 yards, continued to put the Thunderbirds in advantageous field position, averaging a starting point of their own 40. The second half failed to offer the Lumberjacks a reprieve, with a missed 41-yard field goal by Griffin Roehler spoiling a short-field opportunity and Southern Utah running a fake punt as Northern Arizona turned their backs on a return.
“I look at where we had let-downs, that was certainly a huge play,” Souers said of the second recovered kickoff miscue. “The two returns they got early both on kickoffs put our defense in poor field position, the fumble on the kickoff return put their offense in an ideal situation and that fake punt wasn’t even really a fake. We just were in return mode and the guys responsible keeping the punter contained obviously left before they executed their responsibilities.”
Suffering their biggest loss to an FCS opponent since a 36-7 loss to Montana State in 2013, the Lumberjacks also dropped their fourth straight to the Thunderbirds and left Cedar City with their sixth loss in the past seven Grand Canyon Rivalry meetings.
OFFENSIVE MISSED CHANCES
With the special teams struggling and defense unable to slow down Southern Utah’s attack, Northern Arizona’s offense couldn’t keep pace as its offense struggled in key moments.
Coming away with three points to tie the game early in the first quarter, Northern Arizona’s second drive stalled at the SUU 9 after the Lumberjacks set up for first down at the 14. Two short runs by Nate Stinson and an incompletion left Roehler to kick the tying field goal.
A drive later, Northern Arizona faced a third-and-4 at the SUU 23, but a false start pushed the Lumberjacks five yards with an incomplete pass preceding Roehler’s career-long 46-yard field goal.
With Northern Arizona’s defense dropping Southern Utah for a 21-yard loss on their opening drive of the second half, the Lumberjacks found themselves at the Southern Utah 37 and in position to draw within one possession. Down 27-13, Northern Arizona sat at the 25 with a fresh set of downs, but ended the drive empty-handed on the missed field goal one play after a dropped pass in the right corner of the end zone.
Forced to go for a conversion on fourth-and-28 at the Southern Utah 36, Cookus’ deep Hail Mary pass found Elijah Marks but again fell incomplete.
Finally connecting with a receiver on a touchdown pass, NAU's final scoring drive appeared to be a microcosm of its struggles throughout the day. Hitting Marks from the 5-yard line, the ball fell through the receiver's hands, with a touchdown to Hunter Burton a play later nullified by a penalty. Cookus threw his third touchdown pass in as many plays, finally adding points on the board, to Matthew Kempton with 6:41 left to cap the 14-play, 75-yard drive.
“We had drops that we really haven’t had, not that many. It was unfortunate because I thought we had some things there, but on a day like today all those things have to hit,” Souers said. “You want to to keep yourself in the game, but those special teams things are huge and if you can’t maintain a drive because of a dropped ball or missed assignment, your offense is back off the field.”
Cookus finished 23 of 44 for 246 yards and the lone touchdown, while Marks caught five passes for 86 yards. Cory Young rushed for 99 yards on just 14 carries with the team's first touchdown, as the running back served as an early factor before the score impacted Northern Arizona's gameplan.
Landing in a three-way tie for third place in the Big Sky, Northern Arizona enters Sunday squarely on the bubble. All sitting with 6-2 conference records, Northern Arizona lost to Montana and Southern Utah, Eastern Washington lost to Weber State and Southern Utah and Sacramento State lost to the two schools it tied with.
Additionally, Montana tied the three schools’ 7-4 overall record while finishing seventh in the Big Sky at 5-3 and losing the head-to-head with rival Montana State.
Northern Arizona’s potential saving grace would be its Oct. 7 victory against the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s Illinois State. While the Redbirds finished 6-5 and outside the playoff picture, Eastern Washington’s nonconference win came against 4-7 Fordham and Sacramento State’s against 1-10 Incarnate World. Montana’s two nonconference wins came against 6-5 Valparaiso of the nonscholarship Pioneer League and 3-8 Savannah State.