The last time the Northern Arizona football team made it into the FCS playoffs was 2003, which was also the last time they finished with eight wins. Until this season.
Now they just have to wait until later today to see whether their 8-3 record will earn them a high enough ranking to get them into the playoffs. The tournament brackets will be set during today’s FCS selection show.
(*Update: A great run came to an end Sunday when the FCS committee passed over the Lumberjacks, selecting instead three other Big Sky teams: Montana State, Eastern Washington, and Cal Poly. The Jacks became the third 8-3 team to fail to get into the playoffs since the field expanded to 16 teams. They finished ranked No. 20 in the final Sports Network regular-season poll.)
Yesterday’s 42-34 loss to Cal Poly not only kept the Jacks from a guaranteed share, or even outright possession, of the Big Sky Conference championship. The game offered an exciting match-up of the best offense in the conference, the triple-option attack of Cal Poly, against the Big Sky’s stingiest defense that was giving up just 21.8 points and 326 total yards a game.
But a win also required putting enough points on the board to finish the game with more than the Mustangs – a tough task. And that meant the record-setting junior running back from Chandler’s Hamilton High School, Zach Bauman, would need to have a good game.
As Zach Bauman goes, so goes the Lumberjack offense. The 5’10” scatback has rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his three years in Flagstaff – the first to do that in the history of the NAU program – and racked up five 100-yard performances this season. He ran for 253 yards against Montana during the first half of the schedule.
But, as teams began to make him the focus of their defensive game plans, he has been held to under 100 yards the final four games of the regular season. And the Jacks have faltered down the stretch, losing a triple-overtime thriller to Southern Utah last week and now to Cal Poly to close out an otherwise impressive year.
“You can’t have Zach Bauman have a great game,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh told a local reporter before leaving for Flagstaff to take on the No. 15-ranked Lumberjacks. “If they’re running the ball well, we’re going to struggle.”
As it turned out, the Mustangs had a little help in corralling Bauman. An injury put him on the sideline for part of the game and he managed just 44 yards on the night. The entire team finished with just 95 collective yards, while Cal Poly piled up 323 on the ground and another 180 via the pass.
The visitors had their own 100-yard backs on display, as Deonte Williams ran up 139 yards and Kristaan Ivory added 103.
NAU’s senior quarterback, Cary Grossart, did his best to make up for the rushing deficiencies by completing 23 of 36 pass attempts for 274 yards and three touchdowns. But he also threw a couple of picks that helped the Mustangs to almost a 10-minute advantage in time of possession.
“Against that team and that offense, you cannot get behind,” said Grossart after the game. “They take up chunks of time with each possession. We did not take care of the football and move the chains when we needed to.”
Cal Poly had a 14-7 lead after the first quarter and went into the locker room at halftime with a 21-13 advantage, and then widened the lead by seven more before going into the final quarter.
But that was yesterday. Today they wait to see what damage has been done to their playoff hopes.
“We are disappointed in the outcome,” an understatement offered by head coach Jerome Souers last night after the loss. “We had a chance to control our own destiny and be part of the championship. We did not play well enough to accomplish that. We will wait…to see how the tournament committee sees it and whether we are going to be part of it.
“That is all we can do before we assess where we go from here.”
Stay tuned, Lumberjack faithful.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)