NAU football ranked No. 24; plays in ‘The Inferno’ next

Don’t adjust your monitor.  That football field actually is red.  Bright red.

The Lumberjacks will probably get used to their new No. 24 national ranking sooner than they adjust to the new red carpet football field at Eastern Washington, their next opponent.

Northern Arizona University has moved into the national polls for the first time this season, earning a spot at No. 24 in the FCS Coaches Poll and No. 26 in The Sports Network poll (the first team out of the Top 25).

That means Saturday’s game against Eastern Washington will match a pair of ranked teams, since the Eagles are ranked 13th in the Sports Network poll and 14th in the coaches’ poll.

And the Lumberjacks will get a chance to be only the second team to try out the new red artificial playing surface that was installed in time for the 2010 season.  The idea stemmed from the garish blue turf that Boise State has used for years and often referred to as  “Smurf Turf.”

But EWU fans have christened their new field “The Inferno” – which sounds a lot more intimidating than something associated with little blue cartoon characters.  But, then, you can’t say it isn’t working for Boise State, which is currently ranked No. 4 in the country by both major polls.

And it seems to be working for Eastern Washington.  The Eagles debuted the new field against Montana Sept. 18 in its only other home game this season.  The Eagles won that game, 36-27.

EWU is now 3-2 overall and 2-1 in the Big Sky Conference.  The Eagles lost a 49-24 decision to Nevada and then fell to Montana State, 30-7.  NAU enters the game 3-1 overall and 1-0 in conference play.  Arizona State is the only team to have beaten them so far, in a 41-20 game in Tempe.

Eastern is coming off a 35-24 win over Weber State and the Jacks earned a come-from-behind victory over Southern Utah, 26-23.

In the Southern Utah game, NAU trailed for most of the game and was still down 23-19 with 6:46 showing on the clock.  But senior quarterback Michael Herrick engineered a final drive, going 5-for-5 passing including the 15-yard reception by freshman running back, Zach Bauman, for the winning play with just over three minutes remaining.

And Matt Estrada, the senior All-Conference safety, sparked the comeback with a 66-yard punt return for a score and also forced a fumble that was recovered by the Jacks.

Herrick finished the game 23-for-35 for 244 yards and a score, with junior Austin Shanks leading the receivers with eight catches for 82 yards.

Estrada earned the Big Sky Special Teams Player of the Week honors for his performance against Southern Utah.  His punt return for a touchdown was the ninth longest in the history of the program.

Bauman, who finished with 109 yards rushing and 33 yards receiving, was among the nominees for that award.  That effort was his third consecutive game of 100+ yards.

And Scott McKeever, the Lumberjacks’ junior linebacker, was nominated for the Defensive Player of the Year.

Both are local products.  Bauman was playing last year for 5A-I state champion Hamilton High School in Chandler, where he set a single-season school record for touchdowns and scoring.  McKeever is from Wickenburg High School, where he was an All-State selection in football and also holds school records in track & field for the shot put, discus, and 4x1oo relay.

Saturday’s game will feature Bauman up against the Eagles’ prolific junior running back, Taiwan Jones, who is averaging 129 yards per game and ranked as the nation’s sixth-best rusher.  Jones finished his sophomore year with the third highest average for all-purpose yards in the school’s history, averaging a touchdown every 12 times he touched the ball.

But the Jacks will counter with a defense that ranks sixth nationally in stopping the run, allowing just 84 yards per game.

Last year was a high-scoring shoot-out, with the Eagles coming out on top despite being out-gained in total yards by more than 250 yards.

This year, the freshman from Hamilton might make the difference.  Of course, it will also help if the Jacks can avoid the four turnovers they committed last time.

And that may depend on how long it will take them to adjust to that mesmerizing red turf.