By Kent Schmidt
CSN West Columnist
The year before I started covering FCS football (I-AA at the time), I was covering Division II football, but with many of the North Central Conference teams moving up to the D-I level, I moved on to cover this higher brand of football for the then I-AA.org.
That year was 2003 and I began watching the I-AA playoffs — even paid the pay-per-view charges to watch the quarterfinal round that season to see what the level of play was actually be.
Of course, what I saw was a faster, more physical game than the Division II level. The last game of the night was the one I remembered the most during that playoff quadruple-header was Northern Arizona as they hosted now-FBS Florida Atlantic that early December Saturday. NAU the week previously upset top seeded McNeese State to get a chance to host this second round game in the Walkup Skydome.
Obviously, Lumberjack fans will remember this as the last time NAU tasted the postseason when star quarterback Jason Murrietta was just a freshman. Northern Arizona lost to Florida Atlantic 45-28 but most thought this was a prelude to bigger and better things to come for Coach Jerome Souers’ team in just their sixth season under his tenor.
Fast forwarding to 2010, Northern Arizona fans are well aware that that 2003 game was the last time that their Lumberjacks tasted the postseason. But these fans are very hopeful that their team this season will get a chance at these again.
What makes me think that Northern Arizona may have a chance at the playoffs this year?
The Lumberjacks have raced out to a 4-2 overall record and are 2-1 within Big Sky Conference play. NAU is also coming off a huge win over previously undefeated within the conference Montana State 34-7.
The big reason for my attention to this team this year is their defense. NAU held Montana State (who had averaged over 500 yards per game) to just 19 yards in the first half and a total of 123 for the game.
Senior linebacker Cody Dowd completed the scoring the Lumberjacks with a 28-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. He finished this game with a team-best seven tackles.
NAU recorded four sacks and two fumble recoveries with five different players recording a tackle for loss.
"Our defense has been playing very hard and very well," said NAU Coach Jerome Souers. "Montana State had a lot of talent spread across their offense. To manage that much that talent in one setting and hold them to seven points was a major accomplishment."
Senior quarterback Michael Herrick led the upset effort on the offensive side. He completed 32-of-43 passes for 281 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Herrick was 23-of-28 passing for 214 yards with all three of his touchdowns in the first half, as the Lumberjacks raced out to a 28-0 halftime lead. Herrick threw 15-yard TD passes to Austin Shanks and Daiveun Curry-Chapman, and also added a 4-yard scoring strike to Curry-Chapman.
"I couldn't be prouder of the men in our program and the people who support us," said Souers. "This is a program win for us and of major significance. Our staff showed great resolve and our players continue to work hard."
The week previous to this win, the Lumberjacks lost at Eastern Washington 21-14. While Herrick went this last game without an interception, he threw three in this loss. The defense held EWU to 354 yards in this game.
NAU’s other loss was at BCS Pac 10’s Arizona State 41-20 but were within 27-20 at the end of three quarters.
NAU’s other wins have come against DII Western New Mexico, and road games at conference rival Idaho State and the Great West’s Southern Utah.
Haven’t we seen this kind of start before from Northern Arizona?
Yes, the Lumberjacks the past two seasons started their seasons out strong but faded towards the end.
In 2008, NAU started the season at 6-1 but lost their last four games to finish 6-5. In 2009, the Lumberjacks started at 5-2 but again lost their last four games to finish at 5-6.
Those two seasons, however, saw the Lumberjacks having to play several of the top teams. In 2008, three of their final four were also at home but had to play Top 25 ranked teams of Montana and Weber State and also played usual contender Montana State at home and Eastern Washington on the road.
In 2009, their four loses came with three of the four on the road. The losses came to Sacramento State and BCS Southeastern Conference’s Mississippi, and to two Big Sky playoff teams in Weber State and Eastern Washington.
While the Lumberjacks need to travel to Montana this week in the 2010 season, they will again have three of their last four games at home.
Of their final four games, NAU appears to me to be the favorites against Sacramento State, Weber State, and Portland State at home and against Northern Colorado on the road.
Chances of getting to the seven D-I win mark appear to be quite good to me. But we shall see. I thought they had a good chance in each of the past two seasons as well.
Maybe, just maybe, those long awaiting Lumberjack fans will see another playoff game this season. It certainly appears to me like a team that is on the rise right now and not on the decline like the past two seasons.
CSN West Game of the Week
Northern Arizona (4-2, 2-1) @ Montana (5-2, 4-1), 3:00PM Eastern
This has been a one sided matchup with Montana winning the last 12 meetings. But last year, the two went to overtime with the Grizzlies winning 41-34 in Flagstaff. NAU has also not won in Missoula since 1986.
Montana has won four games in a row after starting the season at 1-2 but really none of the four victories have been too dominating in at least two of the wins.
Last week, Montana needed a last second field goal to escape with a 23-21 victory at Portland State. Four weeks ago, the Grizzlies held on to escape at home against Sacramento State 28-25.
Northern Arizona leads the league in scoring defense (16.5 ppg), rush defense (69.7 ypg), and total defense (260 ypg). Montana is second in scoring defense (22 ppg), and total defense (287.4 ypg). UM leads the league in pass defense (146 ypg).
The offenses for each of the teams are also quite good. Montana is second in the Big Sky in scoring offense (37.3 ppg). NAU is fourth (29.0).
Montana after losing starting quarterback Andrew Selle in the Sacramento State game, has been just fine with Justin Roper. Roper in fact has been undefeated as the Grizzly starting signal caller in his career with five wins overall.
All the stats to me seem to lend itself to the Grizzlies gaining their 13th straight victory over the Lumberjacks but I have a feeling that NAU will pull out a close game. I like NAU by a field goal in a closely fought defensive game. NAU 20 Montana 17.
CSN West News & Notes
• Northern Colorado led Eastern Washington 28-21 before the Eagles scored twice in the final 3:08 to pull out a 35-28 win. Bo Levi Mitchell capped a 12- play, 80-yard drive with a 4-yard TD pass to Brandon Kaufman to tie the game at 28-28 with 3:08 to play. Northern Colorado turned the ball over with 1:08 remaining.
• Montana senior Chase Reynolds scored his 55th career touchdown on Saturday, moving into sole possession of fourth place in Big Sky history. He trails Idaho’s Sheridan May (61), Nevada’s Charvez Foger (60), and Sacramento State’s Charles Roberts (57) on the all-time list.
• Weber State quarterback Cameron Higgins threw for 200 yards in Saturday’s 16-13 win over Idaho State. Higgins remained in fourth place on the Big Sky’s all-time passing list. He’ll enter Saturday’s home game against Portland State with 11,352 yards, just 49 away from moving past NAU’s Travis Brown into third place.
• Northern Arizona’s Jerome Souers became the fifth coach in Big Sky history to win 70 career games while coaching in the league on Saturday. Souers’ 70 victories ranks fifth in league history. Chris Ault of Nevada leads the way with 111, followed by Montana’s Don Read (85), Montana’s Bobby Hauck (80) and Eastern Washington/Montana State’s Mike Kramer (77).
• Southern Utah quarterback Brad Sorensen completed 18-of-22 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions as the Thunderbirds defeated Cal Poly, 20-7, breaking a nine-game losing streak to the Mustangs. Sorensen, who threw the TD pass to Tysson Poots in the first half, earned a career-best efficiency rating of 193.42 for the game and averaged 14 yards per completion. His completion percentage of 81.8 was the best in the Great West this season.
• Illinois State running back Ashton Leggett amassed 207 all-purpose yards and scored a pair of touchdowns to lead the Redbirds to a 34-24 win over North Dakota State. He rushed for a career-high 146 yards on 24 carries and caught three passes for 61 yards in the victory.
• Indiana State quarterback Ronnie Fouch became the first Sycamore to top the 300-yard passing mark since the 2005 season with his 311-yard passing effort against Missouri State — a 38-35 overtime win for ISU.
• Southern Illinois’s 31-10 loss to South Dakota State Saturday snapped a 13-game home winning streak in league games. SIU’s last home loss in MVFC play was on Oct. 21, 2006 to Western Kentucky.
• Western Illinois quarterback Matt Barr found receiver Lito Senatus on a 17-yard touchdown pass with one minute left which proved to be the game-winner as Western Illinois came-from-behind to defeat Youngstown State 40-38 Saturday.
• Mason Mills seven-yard touchdown pass to Sam Hokestra with 30 seconds left provided San Diego the winning score in a 14-10 victory against Marist Saturday.
• Campbell's two-point conversion try failed with 17 seconds remaining, allowing Drake to escape with a 14-12 win.
• Steve Valentino threw for 208 yards and two touchdowns to lead Dayton past Butler, 33-13.