It’s officially game week for Arizona, the first of the 2023 season, and the quest for bowl eligibility begins with a familiar foe. Also an infamous one.
In-state rival NAU comes to Arizona Stadium on Saturday night for the first time since 2021 when it shocked the Wildcats 21-19, ending a 79-year drought in the series and extending what would end up being a 20-game skid for the UA.
A lot has changed in just over two years, with Arizona overhauling its roster twice and getting in position to make a bowl for the first time in six years.
As for NAU, to better understand what’s going on with the Lumberjacks we reached out to Eric Newman, sports editor of the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff. Here are his passionate responses to our lukewarm questions.
AZ Desert Swarm: NAU is coming off a 3-8 season in 2022 and was picked by the media to finish 8th in the Big Sky this fall. What are the realistic expectations for the Lumberjacks in 2023?
Eric Newman: “I think that 3-8 isn’t entirely out of the question, but it could be a few more wins if the Lumberjacks can finish off games. They have so many transfers on both sides of the ball that it remains to be seen exactly what they’ll look like. Several contests came down to one score last season, no matter the competition, including two buzzer-beating field goals in the final two home games over quality conference opponents.”
Who are the top offensive players that Arizona fans should be concerned with?
“Hendrix Johnson is a senior receiver. He scored the go-ahead TD in the last game the teams played. He’s gotten faster and more crisp on routes. The quarterback battle is interesting, but I believe Kai Millner will be the starter. He’s a Cal transfer and has a chance to be great.”
Who are NAU’s best defensive players?
“Eloi Kwete is a great defensive end. He’s a potential player to be on the All-Conference first team at the end of the season.”
There are more than 70 players on NAU’s roster from Arizona, including three from the Tucson area. How important is it for the program to play Arizona and/or ASU each year?
“I think the main thing about playing against these Power 5 teams is obviously the paycheck that they get from it. But because there are so many local kids on the squads, the chance to play against the teams they lived near or rooted for is a big deal. The upset over the Wildcats was, as many players have said, an all-time memory for some of them.”
Has there been any talk around the team about Arizona players wanting to get revenge for the 2021 loss in Tucson?
“I think the thought of revenge has been mentioned a bit. But both rosters are so different, and it’s been two years now.”
Prediction time. Can NAU pull off another shocker, or will Arizona open the season with a victory? Give us a score pick.
“I think it’s possible to win for the Lumberjacks. But, as I said in the previous answer, the teams are different. The guys in Tucson aren’t going to overlook this team again. I think Arizona wins, probably by a couple scores.”