Flame still flickers for NAU football playoff hopes

In the lingo of the circus, the Lumberjacks are working the high wire without a net this weekend.

The 5-4 Northern Arizona football team needs to win its final two games to have even an outside chance at an at-large berth in the FCS playoffs.  That task begins with Weber State in a Saturday afternoon home game in the Walkup Skydome.

A win means they have a chance to pocket seven games this season, which would be the most since 2003 – their last trip to the playoffs.

A loss makes the final game of the season against Portland State just another game.

Actually, their playoff hopes have been on life support for some time already.  They needed a win against Northern Colorado last week to bounce back from a disaster in their homecoming game against Sacramento State the week before.

Sacramento State piled up 488 yards of offense on the way to a 40-10 win.  The Jacks turned the ball over three times in the first half alone, while letting the Hornets score on five consecutive possessions to put the game out of reach early.

But they rebounded against Northern Colorado in a 21-14 victory that was led by a healthy Michael Herrick under center.  The senior quarterback injured his hand in a game against Montana State in mid-October and hadn’t fully recovered until the Northern Colorado game.

He completed 15-of-23 pass attempts for 182 yards and a score.  And Zach Bauman, the prolific freshman running back from Hamilton High School, rushed for 105 yards and the other two touchdowns.

Now the attention turns to Weber State, which beat NAU last year in a game played on a cold, snow-covered field in Ogden, Utah.  The Wildcats held the visitors to just three field goals in a 27-9 win.

Actually, it was worse the year before in Flag when Weber State marched into the Skydome and snatched a 42-14 win in a game that should have been much closer since both teams were sporting 4-0 conference records and contending for the Big Sky crown.

But this time the Wildcats may be marching in without their leader.  Quarterback Cameron Higgins suffered a knee injury last week against Montana State.  The senior went down on the final offensive series of the game.  His status for Saturday is “questionable.”

The loss of Higgins for this game would be huge.  He’s the WSU career leader in total offense touchdowns and ranks fourth in league history.  As of last game, he was tied for the most career touchdown passes in Big Sky history.

But Herrick also brings a lot to the party.  A transfer from Ole Miss in 2008, Herrick set a new school passing record earlier this year against Eastern Washington, throwing for 574 yards, and is on the Walter Payton Award watch list.  He has five games this season with 300 or more yards.

But there’s a big difference between the two signal-callers this week.  Herrick is the healthy one who is expected to play.

And that may be the safety net the Jacks need to get past one more game.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)