NAU football breaks 25-year drought against FBS teams

It has been a quarter century since Northern Arizona University beat an FBS opponent.  Last weekend they broke the drought by upsetting UNLV, 17-14, when Andy Wilder kicked a 33-yard field goal with 12 seconds left to play.

As improbable as that sounds, it can’t be fully appreciated without knowing… the rest of the story.

The Lumberjacks, a Football Championship Series (FCS) team that plays in the Big Sky Conference, were coming off a devastating 63-6 loss to Arizona State in the season opener that left them physically depleted and mentally demoralized.

That was the first game back from a disappointing 4-7 season in 2011.  And this year, the rest of the coaches in the conference showed them little respect again, picking the Jacks to finish in seventh place.

They lost their starting quarterback, senior Cary Grossart, to a knee injury in the second quarter of the ASU game.  And their showcase running back was sidelined with a possible concussion.  Zach Bauman, a local favorite from Hamilton High School in Chandler, was last year’s conference rushing leader and is a candidate for this year’s national Walter Payton Award.

To make matters worse, the game against UNLV was on the road.  The last time the two teams met (1992), the Rebels beat NAU by 33 points.  The last time the Jacks beat a Football Bowl Series (FBS) team was 1987 when they defeated Tulsa.

The UNLV game marked just the third time in school history that the football program had played back-to-back games against FBS opponents.

So on Saturday the Lumberjacks found themselves playing a team in college’s top level, in a hostile environment, and without their starting quarterback and senior leader.  Chase Cartwright, a redshirt sophomore, finished the ASU game for Grossart and was under center to start against UNLV.

But wait, it gets worse.

UNLV showed absolutely no hospitality, and immediately compounded the Jacks’ confidence issues by marching 89 yards to score on its first possession.  Talk about letting the air out of their balloon.

And then they piled on some more by adding another score as the second quarter got underway to dig the hole deeper.

And just when the NAU boys started to build a little momentum late in the second quarter, they missed a couple of good scoring opportunities – and then missed a field goal.  They were down 14-0 at the half to a team that was on a mission, seeking redemption for a triple-overtime loss the week before.

Somehow, the Jacks managed to pick themselves up during halftime and come out with enough hope left in the tank to begin changing the momentum.

Austin Shanks returned a UNLV punt 75 yards to pull the Jacks within a score in the third quarter.  Shanks’ TD run was the sixth-longest punt return in school history and the longest in almost 30 years.

Then Bauman tied the game with an 8-yard touchdown run that capped a 15-play, 80-yard drive midway through the fourth.

But, to win this one, the Jacks had to reach deep one more time.  They got the ball back for the last time, with a chance to win it – but had just 1:16 left on the game clock and 86 yards to go to the goal line.

Bauman picked up 25 yards on the first play, UNLV contributed 15 yards on a personal foul, and Cartwright hit junior wideout Ify Umodu for 30 more yards.

That left it up to Wilder, the junior kicker from Notre Dame Prep in Scottsdale – who was kicking his first college career field goal… and had missed his first attempt of the game when it was blocked.

Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it any better than that.  It even finished with the requisite happy ending.

Cartwright, who played at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, finished with 197 yards on 17-for-40 passing and Bauman racked up 103 yards on 20 carries.

“I think I am proudest of what the difference of nine days can make,” head coach Jerome Souers said after the game. (The ASU game was played on Thursday, Aug. 30)  “We really struggled our first game and had some setbacks and some injuries.  But our kids came back and practiced hard and they got much better.

“I am proud of their effort, their attitude, and their willingness to stay at it.”

On Saturday, the Lumberjacks get to test their new swagger when they host Fort Lewis in their home opener.  The Skyhawks are a Colorado D-II team that plays in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

That game should be another confidence-builder.  Fort Lewis lost its opener to New Mexico Highlands, 0-50.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)