At football’s mid-season, AZ colleges solid in conference

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                </div>  It was a good week for Division I college football in Arizona.  Arizona State and Northern Arizona both won, and the Arizona Wildcats had the week off. And boy did […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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It was a good week for Division I college football in Arizona.  Arizona State and Northern Arizona both won, and the Arizona Wildcats had the week off.

And boy did the Cats need some time off.

Both wins were critical to ASU and NAU to keep them in a position to challenge in their conferences —  and the Cats needed the extra time to put the memory of its two-point loss to USC as far in the rearview mirror as possible before trying to regroup in time to take on Washington State on Saturday.

It has also given Arizona some much-needed healing time since some of the key components of its offense – running backs Nick Wilson and Terris Jones-Grisby and veteran guard Cayman Bundage – have been nursing injuries.

All three teams have winning records and are in position to make a run at their respective conference titles as they make the turn into the second half of the schedule, particularly the two Pac-12 programs.  NAU is 2-1 in the Big Sky Conference and Arizona and ASU have identical 5-1 marks in the Pac-12.

Things couldn’t be any tighter between the two Pac-12 rivals, with Arizona State going into Saturday’s meeting with Washington ranked No. 14 in the country and Arizona, despite its 28-26 loss to the Trojans when a game-winning field goal attempt with 17 seconds left to play missed the mark, will carry a No. 15 ranking into Pullman, Wash.  They are slotted in those positions in both the AP Top 25 and USA Today polls.

Both teams are 5-1 overall, while ASU is 3-1 in the Pac-12 and Arizona is 2-1.

Arizona State is riding a two-game winning streak that includes wins over ranked opponents, a 38-34 victory on the road over UCLA and last week’s 26-10 stunner against Stanford in which the Devils defense held the Cardinal to just 76 yards rushing.  The Wildcats won five straight before dropping their last game.

NAU is 4-3 overall, but has been on a roller-coaster ride all season.  The Lumberjacks lost their opener to San Diego State and then pocketed a couple of wins to lesser non-conference opponents – but alternated the next four games between winning and losing.

The Jacks’ 21-17 win over Portland State last week marked its first Big Sky road game of the season, and also featured the return of Chase Cartwright under center.  The senior quarterback from Corona del Sol High School in Tempe has seen limited action this year as Kyren Poe, the junior from Chandler’s Hamilton High School, got the starting role to start the season after serving as the primary QB last season.

But the two games that have been under Cartrwright’s direction have been wins, the first was a 38-35 victory against conference foe Cal Poly in the fifth game of the season.  Poe returned the next week against Northern Colorado, but the Jacks dropped that one, 24-17, and also dropped out of the rankings.  They entered that game ranked No. 25.

Those two conference victories under Cartwright have carried NAU to a 2-1 Big Sky record and keeps them within striking distance of the four teams above them in the rankings.

Head coach Jerome Souers called Cartwright’s number for Saturday’s game and Cartwright responded by completing 17 of his 35 pass attempts for 222 yards and two touchdowns, including one rushing – a three-yard plunge late in the fourth quarter that turned out to be the margin of success.

Line-up changes will also be an important part of the Pac-12 games this weekend.  ASU is expected to put Taylor Kelly back on the field against Washington as the senior quarterback attempts to make his return to the starting lineup after standing along the sidelines propped up on crutches since a Sept. 13 foot injury.  His replacement, Mike Bercovici, has looked like a veteran in his absence, winning two of the three games he directed and enabling the Sun Devils to stay in the hunt for a repeat as Pac-12 South Division champions.

And, if Arizona is able to return Wilson and Jones-Grigsby to the field, the Wildcats will have their top two running backs in the mix again.  The pair provide a big part of the engine that moves an offense that is averaging 557 yards a game – tops in the conference.

The Cats will need every bit of that offensive output to stay up with the Cougars, who are ranked second in the Pac-12 with 535 yards a game.

But Arizona needs to come out of this game with not only a win, but without any new injuries.  The bye week they just enjoyed was their second of the season – and their last this year.

No more extra time for healing… or for shedding bad memories.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)