NAU wins big in football opener, but must face ASU next

A freshman running back stepped in, and the defense stepped up, as Northern Arizona ran up a 48-0 score in its season opener with Western New Mexico.

Zach Bauman, a true freshman, was given a baptism of fire as he started his first collegiate football game in place of the injured starter, Giovannie Dixon.  He responded by rushing 22 times for 167 yards and four touchdowns to give the Lumberjack program the lift of confidence it needed after finishing 2009 with four straight losses.

And a defense which had allowed 327 points last year stepped up its game, forcing three WNM fumbles and sacking its quarterback, Chris Voller, three times.   The Jacks held the Mustangs to 119 yards on the ground and 85 in the air.

NAU jumped on the Mustangs early, scoring on its first two drives and going into halftime with a 35-0 lead.  The Jacks used five different running backs to pile up 211 yards on the ground, and eight different receivers for another 285 yards over the top – including 67 yards contributed by Austin Shanks on seven catches.

Senior QB Michael Herrick, who set a school record last season by throwing for 574 yards in a game against Eastern Washington, continued gobbling up ground as he completed 15-of-25 passes for 178 yards before turning the reins over to back-up transfer Chase Stangel.

But let’s be honest.  Western New Mexico didn’t prove to be the kind of test the Lumberjacks needed to find out where they stand at the start of the season.

WNM is the school that motivated Bernie Busken to return to coaching at the high school ranks.  Busken, the new head coach at Basha High School in Chandler, put in three years as head coach of the Mustangs, but couldn’t win more than four games in any one year.

They had identical 2-8 records the past two years and, judging by the drubbing NAU gave them, may be off to another sub .500 season.

This is a pivotal season for NAU head coach Jerome Souers, who is in his 13th season at the helm of the program, but his latest contract is winding down.

Souers led the Jacks to a conference title in 2003 with a 9-4 record, the first championship since 1978 for the program, but hasn’t been able to duplicate the feat since.  The last two years, the program has been stuck at a .500 season mark and a fifth-place Big Sky finish.

That’s why next week, when they visit Arizona State, is so important.  The Lumberjacks need to play well against a quality opponent.  The Sun Devils have struggled the past two seasons and were picked to finish at the bottom of the conference this season.  But as long as they play in the Pac-10, they are considered a top-tier opponent.

A win next week would be a huge upset… and would go a long way toward creating some  job security for Souers and his staff.

But they’re going to have to take a different approach than when they last met in 2008.  That, too, was a down year for the ASU program, but the Devils still walked away from the last game with a 30-13 win.

And ASU isn’t Western New Mexico, as the Jacks are well aware.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)