This season’s disappointments on the college football field weren’t confined to any area of the state. The fan anguish stretched from down south in Tucson all the way up to Flagstaff in the northern high country.
Expectations weren’t high for either of the Pac-12 schools. University of Arizona was picked in the pre-season polls to finish fourth in the South Division, and Arizona State right behind in fifth.
Both lived up to those low expectations. ASU finished the season in fourth place (2-7) and the Wildcats managed to avoid a complete shutout by beating the Sun Devils in the final game of the season for their only conference win.
But the season unfolded differently for the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, the state’s other D-I team, a FCS program that plays in the Big Sky Conference. To say the ‘Jacks didn’t live up to expectations is an understatement.
NAU was the pre-season favorite to win the conference, coming off a 7-4 season during which the team averaged 470 yards of offense and almost 40 points per game.
They were coming into the 2016 season on momentum after finishing last year by winning four out of the last five games. And they were within a touchdown of making it five straight, losing to Southern Utah, the eventual Big Sky champion, in the season finale, 49-41.
Early predictions were also based on the fact that they had a returning All-American at quarterback and a record-setting receiver. And up front, there were four starters returning on the offensive line.
Case Cookus, the 6’4″ signal-caller from California, threw for 3,117 yards and 37 touchdowns in his freshman season. His primary target at wide receiver was Emmanuel Butler, a sophomore from Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix. Butler set a new school record with 1,208 receiving yards and tied the NAU record with 15 TD receptions.
There was plenty of reason for optimism going into the 2016 season. Head coach Jerome Souers, who was entering his 19th season at NAU, had put together a 31-15 record over the previous four years and the time appeared to be right for the ‘Jacks to contend for the Big Sky championship.
But high hopes soon turned to disappointment. The ‘Jacks lost the first two games and four out of the first five.
Opening against Arizona State was not exactly a confidence-builder, as the Sun Devils dealt them a 44-13 loss. NAU beat New Mexico Highlands in a 73-3 blow-out in the Jacks’ home opener, piling up 686 yards of offense – but lost the other four games by an average of 15 points a game.
A promise for greatness turned into a losing season (5-6) and the No. 1 conference prediction turned into a tie for sixth place at 4-4.
Butler finished the year with 69 catches for 1,003 yards, but Cookus started just four games before a shoulder injury sidelined him the rest of the way, and senior Blake Kemp (Hamilton High School) took over the snaps. Cookus finished with 1,173 yards passing and 13 touchdowns in his four games, while Kemp put up 2,157 yards passing and 111 rushing.
Now the process begins all over again, as the ‘Jacks once again set their sights on a conference championship in 2017.
Cookus and Butler will be back and will be joined by Joe Logan, the freshman from Estrella Foothills High School who was this season’s leading rusher with 726 yards.
The ‘Jacks likely won’t be the favorite next year to win it all, as they were this year.
But that should make it a lot easier to live up to expectations.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)