Arizona State will host Northern Arizona in tomorrow night’s football opener for both teams. Guess which one is nationally-ranked.
Nope. It’s the NAU Lumberjacks.
The Division I Flagstaff school, which is a lower-division program that plays in the Big Sky Conference, is ranked No. 18 in the national STATS FCS and Coaches Preseason polls. The Jacks are also favored to win their conference this year.
Will that be a problem for ASU? It’s not likely be a game-changer. It’s difficult for an FCS program, even one with a national ranking, to overcome the depth-of-talent advantage of a Power 5 conference like the Pac-12.
But it could mean the ‘Jacks will be more competitive this time around and able to avoid the kind of lopsided affairs from the past. The last time these two in-state opponents played each other was in 2012, when the Sun Devils romped to a 63-6 victory.
The last nine meetings have been won by ASU. To find the last time NAU won one of these games you have to go back to 1938, when the Lumberjacks pulled off a 19-13 victory in a game played in Flagstaff. Nowadays, the big boys like ASU and University of Arizona still schedule games with their little brother up north, but NAU has to travel to take them on.
But Jerome Souers, the head coach at NAU who is getting ready to begin his 19th season directing the program, has genuine reason to be optimistic about the team’s prospects this year. The 2016 roster is so solid that for the first time in program history, the ‘Jacks were picked No. 1 in the preseason on both the Big Sky coaches and media polls.
NAU returns six starters on offense, four of those on the offensive line, and five on defense.
There doesn’t appear to be a big-play back to pick up major chunks on the ground, but without a stand-out running back last year they did manage to average 168 yards rushing. Senior Kendyl Taylor, who ran for 249 yards and added 204 yards in receptions, returns along with junior Corbin Jountti, who rushed for 378 yards and six touchdowns.
But the engine that drove the offense last season is back. Sophomore quarterback Case Cookus is the reigning FCS STATS National Freshman of the Year after breaking an 11-year-old FCS freshman record by throwing 37 touchdown passes and piling up 3,117 passing yards. He also led the nation and tied the school single-game record for passing touchdowns with seven.
And his primary target from 2015 is also back. Emmanuel Butler, a junior wide receiver from Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, set a school record with 1,208 receiving yards and tied another with 15 TD catches.
Souers also has some ‘key-man insurance’ this year, in case something happens to Cookus. A senior transfer from East Carolina dropped in his lap during the off-season. Since the two back-ups to Cookus have had no college game experience, it’s expected that Blake Kemp will be first off the bench to replace Cookus.
Kemp played in 11 games at East Carolina and started nine, finishing the year with 2,580 passing yards. A Hamilton High School (Chandler) graduate, he played his first two years of college ball at Mesa Community College, where he ran up 4,544 yards and 43 touchdowns during his time there.
As good as this offense might be this year, there is still history working against an upset tomorrow. Over the past six decades, NAU’s record against FBS teams is 8-50. And over the last 10 years, they’ve won just three opening games.
That says the odds are against them. But anything can happen in college football.
No matter how far-fetched it may seem.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)