NAU Football (0-2) is heading into the second matchup of its three-game road trip after falling to South Dakota last weekend. UArizona is up next on NAU's schedule, a competition last visited in 2019 when the Wildcats jumped out to an early lead and defeated the Lumberjacks 65-41. In series history — with 16 previous contests — the 'Jacks have only won a single matchup: A neutral-site game in Phoenix in 1932.
UArizona has faced struggles of its own; it has nearly been two years since the Wildcats won a game. The team’s last victory came against the University of Colorado on Oct. 5, 2019, and Saturday will mark 714 days without a single win.
With both teams facing adversity early in the season, NAU Head Coach Chris Ball stayed focused on his own team.
“We don’t really worry about the other team and what they’re doing,” Ball said. “It’s really about us — fixing the things that are broken — and that’s all we’ve concentrated on this week.”
This Lumberjack squad looks to be all about keeping everything within the team and not letting any narratives distract from its only goal: Winning the game.
NAU has struggled to run the football early in the season, averaging just 3.1 yards per carry.
“We just got to do a better job of running the football,” Ball said. “We’ve seen two really good fronts; they are very, very physical. We’ve got to do a better job running the football. That’s the point of emphasis this week.”
Freshman running back Draycen Hall, who made his debut during the 2021 FCS spring season, was only able to pick up 10 yards on 5 carries last weekend. With NAU hoping for a revitalized run game, it will be interesting to see if it turns to Hall, who was recruited by UArizona out of high school — but ultimately decided to attend NAU.
For the Lumberjacks, the defensive side of the ball hasn’t been much brighter, allowing 38 points per game through the first two weeks.
“We’ve got to find the guys in there that are going to do what we ask them to do,” Ball said. “You know that’s a big emphasis this week — finding the guys that are going to stay in their gap — and again, we have to be more physical at the point of attack, really on both sides of the ball. Defensively our number one goal of the game is to create takeaways, [and] our second is to stop the run, so we’ve got to do a better job at that.”
NAU’s defense was able to get two momentum-changing takeaways against Sam Houston State in week one, but only could get one last week and lost the turnover battle against South Dakota. The Lumberjacks have also allowed 221.5 rush yards per game this season, which is the most of any team in the conference.
However, defending opponents' passing games has also given NAU issues through the start of this season, as the ‘Jacks have allowed an additional 248.5 yards per game through the air. During practice on Wednesday, defensive backs were working on over-the-top coverage in individual drills.
“Yeah, that’s always what you do. If you’re in zone, you want to stay higher than the highest guy in your zone,” NAU Defensive Coordinator Jerry Partridge said. “We don’t want to give up the big play. The biggest thing that’s happened to us on those big plays in the two ball games, it has really been the yards after catch that have hurt us a bunch.”
NAU faced a tough duo of teams to open up the season, and early struggles should not be overanalyzed. There is time to right the ship because this isn’t a pandemic shortened season. As they start to get into the conference schedule, it will be important to watch the ‘Jacks progression over the next few weeks.
With both teams trying to get their first win of the season, it should be an exciting in-state rivalry game and a potential curse breaker for either team.
Kickoff is Saturday at 7 p.m. in Tucson. Fans can watch on the PAC-12 Network, or listen to the local radio broadcast on Lumberjack Radio Network.