One rung at a time.
It’s been a slow process, but the Lumberjacks are headed in the right direction. That direction is up… in the polls, that is.
The Northern Arizona University football team began the year ranked No. 23 in the Sports Network FCS Top 25 pre-season poll. But the Jacks almost fell out of the rankings when they lost to San Diego State in the season opener as the poll dropped them to No. 25.
But they’ve been on a slow, steady climb back up the ladder since then, moving up to No. 24 after beating Abilene Christian 27-21 and then stepping up one more spot to No. 23 following a 62-23 beat-down of New Mexico Highlands. (The FCS coaches’ poll has them at No. 22.)
Tomorrow’s game will be another opportunity to build a respectable non-conference record when they meet South Dakota in a noon contest.
The Coyotes are 1-2 on the season, but it’s been a crazy-quilt kind of beginning for the FCS team that plays in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
South Dakota opened as this season’s annual offering to the Oregon Ducks, becoming the road kill in a 62-13 rout by the No. 2 team in the nation. Then they were able to take out their frustration on William Penn University in a 41-16 romp – only to lose a close one, 28-20, to Big Sky power Montana last week.
Tomorrow’s game will be just the second time these two teams have met, with NAU winning last year in Flagstaff, 22-16. This year’s contest will be held in the DakotaDome at USD.
As NAU head coach Jerome Souers prepares for the Coyotes, there is one thing sure. The Jacks will have to be prepared to defend an offense that is heavily reliant on the running game. Six of the seven touchdowns USD has scored so far this season have come via the run.
That’s not particularly good news to a Lumberjack defense that struggled against run-heavy San Diego State, losing that one 38-7.
And South Dakota has been quite successful so far at running the ball. The Coyotes have converted 51 percent of their third-down opportunities – 11th best among FCS teams. They’re also effective once they get deep into their opponents’ territory, scoring on 11 of 12 trips inside the red zone.
The Jacks have taken a different approach to scoring points, thanks to what junior quarterback Kyren Poe has brought to the table. Poe is averaging 240.7 passing yards per game, which ranks him fourth in the Big Sky, and has been intercepted just once in three games.
After the loss of the school’s all-time leading rusher, Zach Bauman, to graduation, Souers’ re-tooled offense is providing more of a balanced attack, averaging just over 200 yards a game on the ground.
NAU, which ran up a 9-3 record last year and finished second in the Big Sky, has the benefit this year of an experienced offensive line, but has had to replenish a defense that was one of the best in the conference last year. Eight starters from that D unit have moved on.
And there is a lot of youth on both sides of the ball; five freshmen scored in last week’s win.
This year’s Lumberjack team is still a work in progress. But they’re getting some early-season respect to build on.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)