NAU football opens 2021 season with a win over Southern Utah

Redshirt sophomore defensive back Josh Marsh (8) celebrates after NAU beats Southern Utah 34-33 on a last-second touchdown at Walkup Skydome, Feb. 27.

The Lumberjacks opened the 2021 football season at home Saturday by winning a thriller against the Southern Utah Thunderbirds. Redshirt senior quarterback Keondre Wudtee found redshirt freshman wide receiver Coleman Owen in the endzone as time expired to give NAU the win by a score of 34-33. 

The Lumberjacks showed some early signs of rust in their debut, falling behind 20-2 midway through the second quarter. The game, which looked to be in danger of getting away from NAU early, turned into a back-and-forth contest with the two offenses trading blows throughout the second half. Southern Utah dominated NAU in every statistical category in the first half, pacing the Lumberjacks in rushing yards, passing yards and time of possession, but NAU started to find its rhythm just before halftime. Sparked by an interception that was returned for a touchdown by freshman defensive back Kamdan Hightower, NAU cut the deficit to five going into the locker room. 

NAU head coach Chris Ball had been preaching to his defense the importance of forcing turnovers, and Hightower got the message loud and clear. 

“It was huge, he just did his job,” Ball said. “We put some pressure on [their quarterback] and he overthrew it. I told the guys in the secondary: ‘You get your hands on the ball, you’ve got to catch it,’ and he did, and he went and scored. Any time you can score on defense it’s a big deal.” 

NAU seemed to be a different team after Hightower’s pick-six by scoring touchdowns on their following three drives, including their first two of the second half. The Thunderbirds were not done either, as they began the fourth quarter with a touchdown to reclaim the lead 33-28. The Lumberjacks responded with a long drive, which found them in the redzone once again, but the drive stalled and a missed field goal denied the Lumberjacks any points. 

The Southern Utah offense was led by an impressive showing from redshirt sophomore quarterback Justin Miller, who carved up the NAU defense for 288 passing yards and five touchdown passes. Sophomore wide receiver Brandon Schenks caught all five passes thrown his way for 74 yards and three touchdowns, including a 41-yard score to begin the third quarter. Senior wide receiver Landen Measom pulled in 10 passes for 110 receiving yards and a touchdown.

Ball had praise for Miller after the game.

“[It being] the first game and with COVID, we didn’t know who was going to line up for them,” Ball said. “He did a great job, [Miller is a] good player, but we really didn’t have much of an idea what they were going to do. We had a good handle on their formations, but didn’t quite know what they were going to do passing game-wise.” 

After a fourth-down stop inside their own 20-yard line, the Lumberjacks took over on offense with 81 yards to go and under one minute on the clock. With the help of a pass interference call that spotted the ball in the midfield, NAU moved the ball to Southern Utah’s 10-yard line with 11 seconds to go. On third-and-goal with two seconds left, Wudtee rolled left and found Owen for a touchdown as time expired to give the Lumberjacks the win. The quarterback's first start as a Lumberjack resulted in 252 yards though the air to go along with two touchdowns.

“It was a sprint-out, we were going to hit [Coleman] from the get-go,” Wudtee said. “[The play] broke down and we just freestyled at the end.”

The Lumberjacks look to add another tally to the win column as they hit the road to face the Eastern Washington Eagles March 6.

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