Jerome Sauers and Mike Stoops are becoming well acquainted. Saturday’s meeting will be the fifth between the two head coaches. That’s more encounters than Stoops has had with any currently tenured Pac-12 head coaches except Cal’s Jeff Tedford or Oregon State’s Mike Riley. Perhaps that familiarity is behind NAU’s consistent challenging of UA. Often Championship Subdivision programs are mere warm-ups for BCS conference teams, like The Citadel was forArizona last September. But the Lumberjacks have proven themselves worthy sparring partners for their southern neighbors. The two programs’ last meeting was a 34-17 Wildcat win two years ago, in which UA did not shut the door until the fourth quarter.
Its rising to the UA challenge is one constant for an otherwise unpredictable squad. Last year, NAU finished in the middle of the Big Sky Conference. The Jacks gave eventual national champion Eastern Washington all it could handle on the road, and walloped league champion Montana State 34-7. Yet, NAU suffered perplexing home losses to Sacramento State and Weber State that effectively kept it from the NCAA Playoffs.
That unpredictability makes game planning for NAU difficult. Is the real NAU the team that sacked standout Montana State quarterback Denarius McGhee while holding him to 107 yards passing, or is it the squad surrendered nearly 500 yards and 34 first half points to Sac State? The answer is somewhere in between, particularly with NAU returning just nine starters from 2010.
One new caveat to these Lumberjacks compared to last season’s is at quarterback. NAU is without Michael Herrick, who scored two touchdowns on the Wildcat defense in 2009 despite accruing just 159 yards passing. Cary Grossart, alumnus of California prep powerhouse Folsom High, emerged as the starter in offseason workouts. Grossart beat out fifth-year player and former Arizona State Sun Devil Chasen Stangel for the job.
Grossart saw limited field time in 2009, completing three of four passes for 58 yards. Expect him to target Austin Shanks often. Shanks is the Lumberjacks’ top returning receiving option, a 5-foot-8 speedster that may remind Wildcat fans of former UA star Mike Thomas. Grossart will line up in the backfield alongside Valley-area football factory Hamilton High School product Zach Bauman, the cog to the Lumberjack offense on which UA must key.
Bauman is among the best returning rushers in the FCS, averaging just over 96 yards per game in his debut campaign. Bauman was an Arizona Republic All-State honoree at HHS, but flew under both UA and Arizona State’s recruiting radars. The scholarship snub is certainly motivation for this All Big Sky Second Team selection and potential Walter Payton Award candidate.
A breakout performance against a Pac-12 defense discovering feeling out its identity with six new starters would certainly boost Bauman’s profile on the FCS scene. Bauman will carry in the 20-25 range, but is also a dangerous pass catcher. He tallied the third most receptions of any Lumberjack a season ago, second most among returners.
Conversely, NAU was among the subdivision’s best against the rush. Teams averaged fewer than 90 yards per game rushing against the Jacks. Stalwarts of that defense like Brandon Vance and Isaac Bond are gone, but NAU does return All-Conference member Scott McKeever.
McKeever is a quick and physical linebacker from small Wickenburg High School, a presence in opposing backfields as his team leading nine tackles and 5.5 sacks can attest. Among the assignments for first-timer Ka’Deem Carey will be spotting then stopping McKeever on blitzes from the edge, where the linebacker made his bones last season.
This is one of the lesser experienced Lumberjack teams to come to Tucson in Stoops’ tenure, a positive given UA’s need to hash out its own experience issues.