As I talked a little bit about earlier this week, Northern Arizona's finish to the 2012 season was very disappointing for the Lumberjacks. Starting with a win at UNLV, which was NAU's first win over an FBS school since 1987 when they won at Tulsa 24-20, the Jacks went on an eight-game winning streak, going 6-0 in the Big Sky Conference.
Along came Southern Utah and Cal Poly, who both came to the Walkup Skydome and defeated NAU to finish the year, and knocked them out of the playoff chase. Head coach Jerome Souers said it was mostly about the Jacks losing several linemen due to injury.
Injuries played a key role early in the year for NAU as well. They got pounded by Arizona State 63-6 in Sun Devil Stadium to start the year, a game in which they lost starting quarterback Cary Grossart and star running back Zach Bauman. This gave Chase Cartwright his chance behind center, and led the Jacks to the win over UNLV.
But Cartwright suffered a knee injury, which kept him out of spring practice. Kyren Poe, who went to Hamilton HS with Bauman (Arizona's Tevin Hood also went to Hamilton), won the starting job during fall camp.
"He has outstanding drop-back skills," said coach Souers. Souers also praises Poe's strong arm, creative sense in the pocket, overall mobility, his decision making, and his outstanding composure. He also loved the way Poe took over the state championship game in 2011.
Zach Bauman also loves the kind of athlete Poe is, and what he brings to the quarterback position at NAU.
A little more on Zach Bauman. The senior running back comes into 2013 after recording his third-straight 1,000 yard season, the first to achieve the feat in program history. He's looking to become just the ninth running back in FCS history to rush for 1,000 yards four times, and the first since Chris Evans did so at Samford from 2007-10.
After being hurt early in the ASU game last year, Bauman said it was "frustrating to not be able to help my team." For Arizona kids who go to NAU, the yearly game against either the Sun Devils or Wildcats is huge. Can't imagine what it would be like to have to miss out on that moment.
But since it is huge, you would think there would be extra pressure on Bauman to succeed Friday in Tucson, right? Well... "It's just college football," said Bauman.
How did he end up at NAU coming out of Hamilton though? "I was undersized for a running back, and NAU took a chance on me." Now, Bauman is just about the same size as Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey. "I've put on a few pounds since coming to Flagstaff."
Though they're the same build, Jerome Souers says it's not fair to compare their running styles. "They're totally different backs," he said. And yes, he is on the Walter Payton Award watch list with Ka'Deem.
The receiver/tight end Arizona needs to keep an eye on: Junior R.J. Rickert. The 6-3, 230 Rickert could give some of the undersized Arizona secondary some problems as long as Kyren Poe can get him the ball.
Over on defense, NAU returns several key guys from last year's defense, which taking out the Arizona State game, allowed less than 20 points per game. Overall, they allowed 23.9 points per game, good for second in the Big Sky.
Will Arizona's offensive pace affect the Jacks? Yes. Yes it will. But that's ok with coach Souers. "We have to acclimate to it. We need to take better angles to the ball to offset the size and speed difference."
Senior defensive lineman Tim Wilkinson is one of the leaders of that side of the ball, but coach Souers says that the secondary is probably the deepest out of all the areas for the Lumberjacks, just ahead of the defensive tackles and tight ends. NAU plays a 4-3 defense, but used to play a style similar to Arizona's 3-3-5.
"(The 3-3-5) reduces the running game by about 20 percent," said Souers. "We used to run a scheme similar to it, it gives you a lot more flexibility in the secondary."
"It creates gaps for me," said Zach Bauman. Which makes sense since there's essentially one less person in the box every play than the traditional 4-3 or 3-4. "I just gotta take what the defense gives me."
In the NAU secondary, look for Lucky Dozier and Anders Battle to cause the most issues for Arizona receivers. Dozier led the team with 64 tackles last year, and Battle picked off four passes, including two in the win at Montana.
The Lumberjack Front 7 have a ton of experience. Four of the seven listed starters on the NAU depth chart are seniors (DE Quentin Kantaris, DT Tim Wilkinson, NT George Dunlap III, SLB Ryan Reardon).
Last but not least is NAU punter Andy Wilder. It seems like every year NAU has one of the top punters in the country, possibly due to playing at 7,000 feet, but Wilder returns after leading the nation with a 46.3 punt yards average. He also went 38-for-39 in PATs.
While it'll be tough for NAU to hang with Arizona for four quarters, they've proven that they're a tough opponent when they came to Tucson in 2011 and only trailed 14-10 at halftime. After that game, Souers said, "To come out in your first game and try to establish rhythm is difficult. There are a lot of challenges in that. We had some situations where we did not have a lot to work with and we made some nice plays."
The Wildcats went on to hold the Lumberjacks scoreless in the second half while posting 20 in the third quarter and seven more in the fourth. Cary Grossart's first pass of the second half was picked off by Trevin Wade, and Nick Foles threw a touchdown pass the very next play.
"It was unfortunate that play in the third quarter really was a huge turnaround that gave them a lot of momentum," said Souers. "If there was a turning point, it might have been that. But I think we learned a lot today about what we are capable of doing."
On what will be a success for NAU this time around, Souers said it's all about executing. He wants all of his players to execute, achieve consistency, and don't give up on anything. To play with maximum effort for 60 minutes.
Zach Bauman echoed the same sentiments. "We need good execution to succeed."
Does Souers like playing these annual games against Arizona and Arizona State though? "It helps financially obviously, but it also really helps with our recruiting in Arizona." I think that shows with most of the first-teamers on the squad coming from Arizona high schools.
While no one expects NAU to come to Tucson and win, they might make it competitive, especially with such an experienced defense and an athletic QB who can take off and run at any point. And they're out to prove they belong at the top of the FCS this year after a heartbreaking end to 2012.