‘Unfinished business’…NAU football motto paying off

Motivational gimmicks in sports don’t always work.  But don’t tell that to Jerome Souers.

The head football coach at Northern Arizona University seems to have found one that is paying off big-time.  Souers, in his 15th season directing the program in Flagstaff, printed a bunch of T-shirts with this year’s motto, “Unfinished Business”, and handed them out to his players as a constant reminder of this year’s goal.

But he probably didn’t envision that unfinished business would put the Lumberjacks on the verge of accomplishing something that hasn’t been done in more than a half-century.

If the Jacks can knock off Northern Colorado this afternoon, they will have strung together seven straight victories – the first time that’s been done at NAU since 1958  – which, ironically, was the year Souers was born.

“The slogan kinda referred to our season last year,” Souers explained in a recent interview.  “We have a lot of the same guys on this year’s team that we had last year, that were close in very many games, but didn’t end up winning as many as we wanted, or thought we could have.

“This year represented an opportunity to finish that business and do this year right.”

The Jacks went 4-7 last year, but after a disastrous 63-6 season-opening loss to Arizona State at the end of August, they have done nothing but win.  They are undefeated in Big Sky Conference play this season and ranked No. 13 in the country among Division I FCS teams – the highest national ranking in almost a decade.

And there are very few ‘gimmies’ in the Big Sky; you earn what you get.  It’s one of the tougher FCS conferences and includes four top-15 teams this season, including NAU.  The Jacks are one of three teams still undefeated in league play.

A couple of local athletes are leading the way for NAU this season.  Zach Bauman from Hamilton High School in Chandler is the offensive weapon, and Anders Battle from Desert Vista High School in Phoenix is the spear point of a talented and agressive defensive unit.

Bauman, a 5’10” running back, is approaching a historic plateau in NAU football history.  He needs just 16 more yards to become the school’s first back to rack up three 1.000-yard seasons.  He has compiled 100 or more yards in five of the last six games (disregarding the ASU debacle) and had a huge performance in leading NAU to an upset of the University of Montana, a team the Jacks hadn’t beaten since 1997.  He accumulated 253 yards and scored three touchdowns.

Battle, a cornerback who was an All-Big Sky Honorable Mention last season, leads the team with 48 tackles.  He had a monster game last week in a 21-7 Homecoming victory against UC Davis when he recorded a career-high 14 tackles, forced a fumble, and had a pass deflection.

Both Bauman and Battle are juniors, another reason the head coach is smiling this season.

A much-improved NAU defense has made its contributions to this season’s success.  It went from seventh in the conference last year against the pass to first place this year, and is also ranked second in overall defense this season.  They have nine interceptions, second-best in the conference; last year they had six all season.

Despite the spin Souers wants to put on today’s game, the Jacks should leave Greeley with their seventh straight win.

“Our focus has been, and always will be, one week at a time,” Souers says in addressing the Northern Colorado match-up.  “We are working on the things we need to do to get better fundamentally and dialing in the schemes we need to be prepared for a good Northern Colorado team.

Just how “good” the Bears are remains to be seen.  They beat Idaho State last week, 52-14, running up 527 yards of offense.  But it was their first conference win, and just the second overall.

NAU has won five of the last six played at Northern Colorado and you have to go back to 1978 to find the last time the Bears beat the Lumberjacks.

Actually, the Jacks could easily be expected to run their string to nine wins since their next three opponents have just three conference wins among them.

But Souers is focused right now on Northern Colorado.  He doesn’t want to get caught looking past the Bears.

“Historically, this game has been a tough match up there,” he notes.  “It has always been down to the last drive and a battle to the end.

“We expect the same type of game.”

(Photo: NAU Athletics)