NAU football team on fire after season-opening blowout loss
Soon after the Northern Arizona University football team walked off the field in the wake of a 63-6 loss to Arizona State in its 2012 season opener at Sun Devil Stadium Aug. 30, the Lumberjacks' players were determined to learn from the deflating experience.
During the nine weeks since that humbling setback, their decision to turn the page and play with pride has paid dividends.
"We used it as motivation to never let that happen again," NAU junior cornerback Anders Battle said of the debacle in Tempe during a phone interview this week.
Heading into its Big Sky Conference game against Southern Utah Saturday in Flagstaff (2:05 p.m. on Fox Sports Arizona), NAU has won eight straight contests - including a 17-14 stunner over NCAA Division I UNLV Sept. 8 in Las Vegas - and finds itself in position to clinch a share of the league title with a victory.
Lumberjacks starting senior quarterback Cary Grossart said the setback to the Sun Devils was critical to the team's current run.
"Luckily, we came together. To come back and play well against UNLV, it was a big win for us. It put us on the right track," he said. "We were confident, and we knew that we were way better than how we played against ASU, so that confirmed what we already knew - that we were a good team."
The Lumberjacks (8-1 overall, 6-0 league) are riding their longest winning streak since the program's 1958 season. They have been ranked for seven consecutive weeks in both the Football Championship Series (FCS) Coaches poll and the Sports Network poll, which track the teams in the former NCAA Division I-AA.
Battle (6-0, 185), a product of Phoenix Desert Vista High, attributes NAU's turnaround to its off-season commitment to improve on last fall's disappointing 4-7 record and sixth-place finish in the conference.
"A lot of guys stayed here over the summer. We all worked out together and we all stayed together and worked hard," Battle said. "I just really think that hard work pays off - finally."
Longtime NAU coach Jerome Souers said in a conference call Wednesday that, over the past three years, his program has developed a different approach that demands accountability from players year-round, from the weight room to the field.
"Our guys were close last year, but we were missing some pieces," he said. "The maturity has enabled us to have that mindset of approaching every day professionally, being very prepared and learning how to practice and improve every week and turning that into a quality performance."
No. 11-ranked NAU, the lone undefeated team left in the Big Sky, has not captured a league title since 2003 when the Lumberjacks were co-champions under Souers, who's in his 15th season.
However, the current Jacks appear poised to claim another crown, as they finish the campaign with their final two games at home, where they're 3-0.
Nevertheless, NAU's finale comes Nov. 17 against a Cal Poly team that's presently 5-1 in the league. The Mustangs are tied for second place with Montana State and Eastern Washington.
This fall, NAU's record has improved in part because of a balanced West Coast-style offense that's committed to the run and a defense that's rated first in the conference against the pass.
Offensively, the Lumberjacks have leaned on 5-foot-10, 200-pound junior running back Zach Bauman of Chandler Hamilton High, who is second on NAU's all-time rushing list with 3,549 yards.
A first team All-Big Sky selection in 2011, Bauman needs only 245 yards to match former NAU tailback Marcus King's school record of 3,794 yards from 1998-2001.
"Zach's a special player, and a player that you don't see that often - from his work ethic to what he does on the field," Grossart said. "He's given excitement to this program and a reason for fans to come and support us with the plays he's made."
One of the biggest progressions for the Lumberjacks this season has been their defense, which has limited the opposition to 20.3 points per game and an average of 330.6 yards per contest - both league bests.
On paper, those numbers might not seem stellar, but in a Big Sky Conference known for its high-flying offenses, they're not too shabby.
"Defense wins championships, and sometimes the offense doesn't get on a roll like we should be," Bauman said. "We know that the defense is going to get a stop and get us the ball back."
Battle, who is NAU's leading tackler, and junior transfer defensive back Lucky Dozier (5-10, 185) of Sacramento, Calif., who has a team-high four interceptions, help guide an athletic unit.
This season, defensive coordinator Andy Thompson developed a motto, "Competitive, Dependable and Tough," that his players have bought into.
"We've been following it, and it's a good example of what this defense has really shown," Battle said.
Before this campaign began, the Big Sky coaches picked NAU to finish seventh in the 13-team league, while the media predicted ninth.
But the Lumberjacks, particularly their experienced senior leaders, refused to listen to the detractors and are now on the cusp of guiding the program to its first FCS playoff berth in nine years.
"We've been battle-tested in our ability to finish games," said Grossart of Folsom, Calif., who's in his second season as the starter. "Our staff and our coaches have done an unbelievable job of kind of raising the standards of how we practice, and the expectations."