Zach Bauman is a year older. Cary Grossart is healthy again. And NAU football is winning.
The Lumberjacks jumped to No. 18 in the Sports Network Top 25 for FCS teams this week following an impressive win over Portland State that gave them a 4-1 start and puts them in a four-way tie at the top of the Big Sky Conference, with a 2-0 mark.
Bauman, a junior from Hamilton High School in Chandler, led the Big Sky in rushing last year and is off on a pace this year that will move him closer to being the all-time rushing leader at Northern Arizona University.
The 5’10” running back has 3,085 yards so far, which puts him at fourth on that prestigious list, and needs just 710 yards to move to the top. Barring an injury, he could reach that goal by the end of this season, and most definitely by early next year.
In the Portland State win last Saturday, he rushed for 92 yards on 28 carries, and added 40 more yards on four catches. But he has also opened up the passing game for the Lumberjacks this season, as defenses key on his run threat to open the secondary for their receivers.
Grossart, the senior quarterback from California, took advantage of that against the PSU defense, connecting with 11 different receivers to finish the day with 24 completions for 262 yards and a couple of touchdowns. Kejzon Walker, a sophomore tight end from Basha High School in Chandler, appeared to be Grossart’s favorite target, with five catches for 59 yards.
This was just Grossart’s second full game, after being sidelined with a knee injury suffered in the season opener against Arizona State.
But the really impressive part of this season’s early success is that the Jacks are not only putting points on the board, but playing near-flawless football and being able to count on their defense as well.
NAU has not committed a turnover in 18 quarters, going back to a sloppy effort against ASU that resulted in three interceptions. Since then, sophomore Chase Cartwright and Grossart have put together a string of 124 pass attempts without a pick.
Cartwright, another local recruit from Corona del Sol High in Tempe, engineered a huge 17-14 win over UNLV in Grossart’s absence – the first NAU victory over an FBS team in 25 years.
The defense has stepped up, too, holding opponents after the 63-6 blow-out loss to ASU to an average of just under 14 points a game. Last week against Portland State, the defense held the Vikings to just 85 yards in the first half, enabling the Jacks to build a 17-3 advantage at intermission, and then holding PSU to one score in the second half.
That balanced play has given NAU its highest national ranking in four years, and the first time since 2009 that the Jacks have been able to string together four straight wins. The last time they opened conference play with two straight was 2008.
Now they have a bye week to prepare for an Oct. 13 game on the road against North Dakota, a 3-2 team that is 1-1 in conference play. North Dakota has to play one of the conference leaders, Eastern Washington (3-1, 2-0), this weekend.
So NAU head coach, Jerome Souers, has 10 days to get ready for North Dakota – and continue to make a point after getting picked in the pre-season to finish ninth in the Big Sky.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)