During the bygone comedic era of slapstick comedy, an act called The Three Stooges was the best of its day.
Curly was the guy in the middle, the one constantly poked and slapped around by the other two, Moe and Larry.
With all due respect to the NAU football program, the Lumberjacks could pass for the modern version of Curly. Arizona State is Moe. University of Arizona is Larry.
And later today, ‘Curly’ will be back on the field again, ready to take his lumps. This time it will be ‘Larry’ inflicting the pain as Northern Arizona University travels down the hill from Flagstaff to be this season’s sacrificial lamb at the Wildcats’ homer opener in Tucson.
For the Lumberjacks, it’s always a road trip to either Tucson or Tempe. It’s the price they pay for a chance to compete against a Pac-12 opponent. However, it’s always a handsome payday for the ‘little brother’ from the north country, which helps ease the sting of the lopsided losses.
Since 2010, NAU has played Arizona State three times and Arizona three times. The Sun Devils have outscored the ‘Jacks, 148-39, over the course of those games. The Wildcats have run up a 180-47 advantage. The closest NAU has come to matching scores with either one of them was back in 2010 when they came within 21 points of the Devils (41-20).
(*Update: Nothing has changed…UA finished the game with 720 yards of offense and piled up 51 points before halftime on the way to a 65-41 rout that could have been much worse if the ‘Jacks hadn’t given the reserves lots of playing in the second half.)
The worst beatings came in 2012 (63-6 by ASU) and 2015 (77-13 by UofA).
Believe it or not, NAU was actually the team with the national ranking going into one of the more recent games. NAU, a Division I FCS program that competes in the Big Sky Conference, came into the 2016 season ranked No. 18 in the national STATS FCS and Coaches Preseason polls. ASU was not ranked among the FBS schools.
As it turned out, the results weren’t much different than any other year; the Sun Devils won by 31 points.
In fact, it’s been a long time without much change. The last time NAU beat their nemesis Tempe was in 1938, when the ‘Jacks pulled off a 19-13 win in Flagstaff. And Arizona’s string of 13 consecutive victories stretches back even further, to 1933.
NAU didn’t play either team last season, but Arizona hosted the ‘Jacks for the opener to the 2017 season, a game NAU is still trying to forget. Shun Brown returned an NAU punt 66 yards for a touchdown less than five minutes into the game, but the ‘Jacks were able to answer with a 58-yard TD run by Cory Young. But the Cats quickly put the game away by scoring six of the next seven touchdowns and coasted to a 62-24 rout in front of 43,620 fans who got just what they were expecting.
Perhaps the biggest difference between those beat-downs of the past and what may happen today is a guy named Chris Ball. For the last 21 seasons, Jerome Souers was the head coach assigned the task of dealing with what is almost an annual ritual of taking on either ASU or UofA. Souers resigned after last season and Ball has inherited the challenge of trying to keep it close with the Pac-12 bullies.
An interesting sidebar to the game is that Ball and Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin, who is in his second year running the Wildcat program, aren’t strangers. The two spent a couple of seasons together (’89,’90) at Washington State where Ball was an assistant coach and Sumlin was a graduate assistant on Mike Price’s staff.
NAU is coming off a 37-23 home victory over Missouri State. Arizona lost its season opener on the road, 45-38, to Hawaii.
Both teams are led by senior quarterbacks. In their openers, Case Cookus threw for 290 yards for NAU, while Arizona’s Khalil Tate had 361 yards passing — but also picked up another 108 yards rushing. The ‘Jacks finished with 439 yards of total offense; the Cats had 539 total yards.
However, it will be the NAU defense that will carry a heavy load in today’s match-up. Over the last five games between the two teams, the Wildcats have averaged 50 points a game.
Whether it’s putting up enough points or holding down a potent offense, it’s likely to be a tough day for the new head honcho in Flag.
But that won’t come as a surprise to anyone. Especially the weary Lumberjack fans who continue to hold out hope that this will be the year that Curly fights back – and wins.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)