You have to go back to 1997 to find the last time the NAU football program recorded a win against the University of Montana. That was also the last season Jerome Souers spent as a member of the Montana coaching staff.
He left following that season to take over the program at Northern Arizona University, and had no doubt expected to keep right on beating the Grizzlies. But that never happened. Not once in 14 frustrating years.
Until Saturday afternoon.
A full house of Lumberjack fans had gathered at Granny’s Closet, a popular eatery near the NAU campus in Flagstaff, to provide some long-distance support for the conference opener. They were rewarded handsomely as they watched their 2-0 team break the agonizingly long dry spell by beating Montana in Missoula, 41-31.
The Grizzlies were the only team left in the Big Sky Conference that Souers has not been able to beat during his 15 years at the Division I FCS school.
This was a huge win for the program, elevated by the fact that Montana was ranked No. 14 going into the game – and had lost just once in 40 games at home.
And it offers promise of a season that may finally fulfill the expectations Souers had for the program when he first arrived.
He spent 12 years at Montana, the last eight as the program’s defensive coordinator, and had become accustomed to winning. The Grizzlies enjoyed 12 straight winning seasons while he was there, had seven post-season appearances, and made it to the national championship game in 1996.
He had hoped to transfer that success to Flagstaff, but has met with mixed results. He’s had just two seasons with more than six wins, posting an 8-4 season in 2001 and a 9-4 record in 2003.
But this season, the Jacks are off to a 3-1 start and were coming off a 69-0 blow-out of Division II opponent Fort Lewis to build some momentum before facing Montana. They now own their first three-game winning streak in the last four seasons.
The surprising start also soothes some of the sting left over from last year’s 4-7 finish.
To get to that third win, the Jacks had to overcome a 17-point deficit against a team that had held their last opponent, Liberty University, to just 21 yards rushing.
But the Jacks’ prolific running back, Zach Bauman, was up to the task. The junior from Hamilton High School in Chandler finished the game with a career-high 253 yards and three touchdowns.
Bauman quieted the Montana fans right away, scoring on a 75-yard run just 11 seconds into the game. He was the game’s workhorse, carrying the ball 29 times on the night.
“You have to ride the guys that get you there,” said Souers, in heaping praise on his 5’10” record-setting back. “He was amazing, from the way he started the game until the way he finished…When you have a guy like that he is going to take you somewhere.”
Bauman led an NAU surge that piled up 34 unanswered points and enabled the Jacks to take a 41-24 lead in the fourth quarter. Ten of those points came off three forced turnovers by an NAU defense that kept giving the ball back to the offense, providing a time-of-possession advantage of 13 minutes.
And the Jacks had their starting QB back to take advantage of those possessions. Cary Grossart, the senior quarterback from California, was back after two games on the sidelines following an injury in the opener with Arizona State, contributing 138 yards on 16-for-23 passing.
Before the game, Grossart said he had a good feeling about what was to come. “We are coming together and it feels like we are peaking right now,” he said at the time. “We have all the pieces together and we have a great plan.”
It’s a little early in the season to be peaking. But the pieces are definitely lining up to make a good run at the post-season.
(Photo: NAU Athletics/ Dean Hendrickson)