NAU football beats Cal Poly to stay in Big Sky title hunt

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                </div>Trying to defend the triple option attack in football is a lot like trying to keep track of the little pea in the old shell game.  There’s a lot of […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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Trying to defend the triple option attack in football is a lot like trying to keep track of the little pea in the old shell game.  There’s a lot of misdirection as one running back runs one way, another goes the opposite way, and the running quarterback turns the plays into controlled chaos.

But a week of practicing to defend against it paid off for Northern Arizona University as the Lumberjacks’ defense held the rarely-seen offense in check and then used a 96-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter to beat Cal Poly, 17-13, in a pivotal Big Sky Conference match-up over the weekend.

It was the one and only time NAU would see the triple option this season, and it could have tripped the Jacks up on their way to a chance to play for the Big Sky title.

The Mustangs have used the triple option to become the nation’s rushing leader, averaging 287 yards per game.  Last night in San Luis Obispo, the ‘Jacks held Cal Poly to 50 yards below their average and kept alive NAU’s quest for a conference title and their first playoff berth since 2003, the same year they won a share of the Big Sky title.

Last year, they fell just short of both goals – and it was Cal Poly that kept them from attaining either.  In the last game of the season, the Mustangs’ 42-34 victory knocked the Jacks off their path to the conference title, forcing them to settle for a fourth-place finish in the Big Sky, behind three teams that shared the title.

And it put just enough of a dent in their 2012 resume that the selection committee passed them over for a spot in the playoffs, despite an 8-3 finish to the regular season.

But Saturday night’s win over Cal Poly (3-5, 2-2) did a lot to cover over the old wounds.  And the way that NAU (6-2, 4-1) pulled off the victory in front of 9,982 fans at Spanos Stadium had to really hurt.

The teams were tied at 10 points apiece at halftime and both went scoreless in the third quarter.  But the fourth quarter immediately made up for any lack of scoring activity prior to that.

Cal Poly broke the deadlock just three seconds into the final quarter when Bobby Zalud poked his second field goal of the game through the uprights.  On the very next play, Marcus Alford put the Jacks back in the lead with a kickoff return that went for 96 yards and sealed the victory.  It was NAU’s first kickoff returned for a score all season.

Both teams were still in the process of breaking in new starting quarterbacks.  Cal Poly was on its third QB this season after injuries sidelined the first two; sophomore Dano Graves made his first collegiate start just two weeks prior.  And NAU had Chase Cartwright under center after he replaced the season starter, Kyren Poe, just two weeks before this game.

Cartwright completed 16 of his 31 pass attempts for 277 yards and Graves was 11-for-22 for 115 yards.  Both were picked, with Cartwright throwing two interceptions and Graves one.

Senior running back Zach Bauman, who entered the game as the nation’s leading rusher, added 91 yards to the team’s total, which was shy of his conference-leading 115 yards per game.

The win over unranked Cal Poly probably won’t be enough to give NAU, which entered the game at No. 16 in the Sports Network Media poll, much of a boost in the national rankings.

But the sweet taste of revenge had to be enough to make this win special.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)