NAU is coming off one of its most monumental wins as a program after defeating the UArizona Wildcats in Tucson on Saturday. Graduate linebacker Harrison Beemiller received Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week honors for his tenacious performance, recording 10 tackles — 4.5 for a loss — and forcing a fumble against the Wildcats.
“We preached on energy, effort and doing our job,” Beemiller said. “But it took team defense, [and] our front seven played great. We can’t be good without the D-Line, if they’re playing good, we’re playing good at linebacker. As cliche as it sounds, energy and effort were the difference.”
After allowing 38 points per game through the first two weeks, NAU’s defense held the Wildcats to only 19 in Saturday’s victory.
The defense also held UArizona to just 106 yards on the ground.
“The effort they gave Saturday night was incredible, guys near the sideline outside the numbers gang tackling, they just played with extreme effort,” defensive coordinator Jerry Partridge said earlier this week.
Graduate punter DJ Arnson was also awarded Big Sky Player of the Week for Special Teams. Arnson averaged over 50 yards per kick on nine punts Saturday, and placed three inside the 20.
The last punt in the game did not give the Wildcats a lot of room to work with; they had to start on their own 15-yard line.
“If I give the defense 99 yards to defend, that’s a great day,” Arnson said. “So anything I can do to extend the field for this defense; that’s what I try to do when I get out there. That was a game I knew I had to go out and produce, like coach Ball has been saying. There's a lot of us who feel we were overlooked by other colleges, so to come out and be able to perform my best game on that stage — if I can do it there I can do it anywhere.”
The special teams unit was able to control field position and set up NAU’s defense to get stops against the Wildcats.
Arnson was also sure to give some love to his long snapper.
“Justin Hathoot, you know he really starts everything,” Arnson said. “Without his laser beams, I can’t do what I do.”
For a special teams unit, having a consistent long snapper who always hits the strike zone makes everything easier. Having that talent at long snapper is not always a given, but Hathoot is a key component to NAU’s unit being one of the best in the country.
Now, NAU looks ahead to the final game of its three-game road trip, heading up to Greeley, Colorado for the conference opener against the University of Northern Colorado. The Bears come into this game with the same record as NAU at one win and two losses. Their victory came in week two against Houston Baptist University.
“I told the defense today, you take that effort to the field this Saturday in Greeley Colorado, [and] I guarantee you we are going to win the ball game,” Partridge said. “But if you don’t and you’re half-cocked, you’re going to get embarrassed. Last week we really started pushing effort, and something clicked. Maybe it was 33,000 people, [or] maybe it was Arizona, but I don’t know. They have to keep doing it every week.”
For NAU, maintaining that effort and defensive consistency is key going into conference play.
UNC’s starting quarterback, Michigan transfer Dylan McCaffrey, was knocked out of week two’s contest with a shoulder injury after a late hit out of bounds. Redshirt Junior Conner Martin filled in the rest of that game and started week three.
“I think they’re similar in their abilities and what they do,” Partridge said. “[Dylan] McCaffrey's bigger, a little taller [and] probably can see better out of the pocket, but it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen. The other kid’s a competitor. They’ve got big receivers; they’ve got big backs that run hard. In 2019, we stopped the run against them, but they were able to throw the football a little bit, and that’s something we can’t have happen.”
When these teams last collided in 2019, NAU took the win 41-23. However, neither side has been able to establish a winning streak in this rivalry. Separate from the pandemic-shortened season, this matchup is played every year with alternating locations. The away team has not won since 2012, when NAU was victorious in Greeley by a score of 12-10.
The Lumberjacks know the task they face, but refuse to let it distract them from playing football.
“We gotta set the standard a little bit higher,” head coach Chris Ball said. “We talked about it yesterday — how it’s a hard place to play — [but] I’m not talking about it anymore. That’s over, that’s not an excuse [and] we want to be 1-0 in Big Sky.”
UNC and NAU have not met since coach Ed McCaffrey took over for the Bears after the 2019 season. Football fans probably recognize the McCaffrey name; Ed won three Super Bowls playing with the Broncos and 49ers in the ’90s. His son, Christian, is running back for the Carolina Panthers. Meanwhile, his other son Dylan is UNC’s injured quarterback.
Football pedigree may run in this family; however, Ed faces a new challenge coaching in the Big Sky. His first conference test comes against an NAU squad coming off one of the biggest wins in program history.
Now, the NAU quarterback situation is as strange as ever. After his scheduled appearance in the second quarter last week, freshman RJ Martinez played for the remainder of the contest and led the ‘Jacks to a win. Graduate quarterback Keondre Wudtee, who suffered an ankle injury in week one, was back in pads at practice this week — though his status is still unknown. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff Widener has received a majority of the snaps in Wudtee’s absence, but has struggled with turnover issues. Finally, Oregon transfer quarterback Cale Millen has only seen glimpses of playing time. Come Saturday, who NAU will start is truly unpredictable.
This game is going to be a battle between two teams that match up well. Two tough rushing attacks and relatively equal passing offenses will fight for victory; however, NAU faced a tougher schedule early in the season. Northern Colorado’s secondary was strong through the first three weeks — only allowing 408 yards through the air — but they gave up 542 yards on the ground.
Last week, NAU freshman running back Kevin Daniels exploded for 127 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries and was the Lumberjacks’ biggest factor on offense. Look for him, or another member of that talented backfield, to perform again this week against the weaker rush defense.
This week’s conference opener kicks off Saturday at 12 p.m. MST in Greeley, Colorado, and it will be streamed on ESPN+. Viewers can also find Mitch Strohman and Kevin Stephens on the call via Lumberjack Radio Network.