On the precipice of a Big Sky Conference title and an automatic FCS playoff berth, the No. 23 Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (7-3, 6-1 Big Sky) find themselves in a familiar position.
Set to face the No. 14 Southern Utah Thunderbirds (8-2, 6-1) in Cedar City Saturday, the situation nearly mirrors that of the 2015 season. Entering the finale at 7-3, the Lumberjacks fell 49-41 in Cedar City to the 7-3 Thunderbirds, who clinched the outright Big Sky title with their eighth win. Similarly, the 2014 season ended with a 22-14 loss to Southern Utah as Northern Arizona sought its eighth win of the season and missed the FCS playoffs.
“That’s the big risk, you think you have to be more than yourself to play the game; we need to be ourselves in the truest form, and our best form,” Souers said following Thursday’s practice. “Sometimes a player feels like they have got to do more like, ‘I’ve got to take this gap and that gap too, I’ve got to do things extra hard or extra special.’ The most special thing we can do is all 11 guys play as one when they are out there.”
Nearly every scenario remains in play for the Lumberjacks, from a first-round bye in the FCS playoffs to missing the 24-team bracket completely. A win seemingly locks in the Lumberjacks via the Big Sky’s automatic berth, possibly in the conversation for a bye depending on the final score, and all but assures the team of a first-round home game.
A loss puts the Lumberjacks on the bubble, stuck amongst a host of teams seeking one of the final berths -- including Montana, who knocked off Northern Arizona 17-15 two weeks ago in Missoula.
“We are in a great mindset, we have had a couple of great practices,” Souers said. “We have had to peel back a little for some of the wear and tear. I think that’s bringing them back, we look a little fresher. I’m excited about Saturday.”
The schools have shared four conference opponents this season, with NAU winning all four and Southern Utah falling to Sacramento State in California. Both beat Cal Poly, Northern Colorado and UC Davis, who reside in the bottom two-thirds of the Big Sky.
Thunderbirds quarterback Patrick Tyler enters the game 12th in the nation with 269.9 yards passing per game in nine games, having missed the loss to Sacramento State. Tyler’s 20 passing touchdowns is tied for 21st nationally with Northern Arizona’s Case Cookus and his 144.0 passer efficiency sits 27th.
Coupled with the conference’s sixth-best rushing offense at 180.1 yards per game, 31.7 coming by Tyler himself, and the fifth-ranked scoring and yardage defense, Southern Utah has a script similar to NAU's for success, Souers said.
“Their program success is not dissimilar to ours -- you try to find ways to be successful offensively, defensively and in the kicking game,” Souers said. “They have success in all three and we have, too, when we are doing it right. Really that’s what has got us to this point is our team balance.”
As it has all season, Northern Arizona’s pass defense will be crucial in the pursuit of a win. Entering Saturday, the Lumberjacks rank 10th best in the FCS with 162.5 yards allowed per game, 13th in pass efficiency defense at 108.16 and ninth with 15 interceptions.
THE FINAL APPEARANCE?
Saturday also could be the final game for Souers at the helm of Northern Arizona, pending the result and the FCS playoff committee’s decision making.
Seeking the HintonBurdick Grand Canyon Trophy for the first time since 2013 and just the second time in the past seven years, the 20-year head coach and his entire coaching staff could be departing the school with a loss, given the madness currently surrounding the program.
A pair of former players are among that coaching staff, as Nick Butier and Devon McPeek spent Souers' final season alongside their college coach as graduate assistants. Butier, an All-Big Sky fullback before graduating in 2015, and McPeek, a member of the Lumberjacks’ secondary before graduating a year ago, each said they knew they wanted to get into coaching after finishing their playing careers.
“I have always known I wanted to be a coach, just not at what capacity or what the process was,” Butier said. “Then when I saw the GAs above me, people like Mike Cody and Cody VonAppen, I understood what the process was and what it took to be a GA. I talked to our offensive coordinator when I was a junior telling him what I wanted to do and it just worked out.”
McPeek said he felt his greatest strength on the field seemed to translate into a coaching role.
“They always told me I was a really smart player, so I kind of used that all the time. Once I got into the coaching room, I realized I was a smart player but I am a dumb coach. There’s so much more to learn,” McPeek said. “As a player, that’s always what kind of got me through and being able to hide some of my weaknesses, just using my smarts, that was my strength, really.”
Both players said their relationships with the coaching staff made it an obvious choice to come back. Butier praised Souers, running backs coach Jimmy Beal, director of recruiting and player development Craig Knoth and even defensive coordinator Andy Thompson, who originally brought him in as a linebacker.
“They definitely gave me the best five years of football of my life,” Butier said. “Wanting to start a coaching career, I think this was the best place to be with all these coaches that I love.”
McPeek’s connection to Thompson, as well as the different position coaches he had through the years at Northern Arizona, pushed him to remain in Flagstaff as opposed to pursuing other opportunities.
“It’s been really good to have stability, I have had a good relationship with (Souers) throughout all five years I played and now a sixth year as a GA,” McPeek said. “We have a similar educational background, so I just pop in there to talk with him on that type of stuff.”
For Butier, Souers’ style and trust in his assistant staff made Northern Arizona a perfect starting point as a coach.
“(Souers is) the ultimate player's coach, he empowers all these players to do their best every day and the guys want to play for him,” Butier said. “It’s definitely the best situation that he puts us in and it translates on the field, and has ever since I’ve been here. He trusts these coaches to do exactly what they are supposed to do and luckily we have such great coaches here, they do everything they need to.”