NAU football went on the road for a third consecutive away game in Cedar City, Utah to take on the Southern Utah Thunderbirds. The Lumberjacks are two weeks removed from losing to Weber State thanks to a 50-yard Hail Mary that gave the Wildcats a 28-23 win. Southern Utah was also fresh off of a loss to Weber State last week despite leading 16-9 in the fourth quarter.
Close losses have been the story of the season so far for the Thunderbirds, going back to their first game of the season, which was Feb. 27 against NAU. In that game, the Lumberjacks came back and won on a last-second touchdown pass from redshirt senior quarterback Keondre Wudtee to redshirt freshman Coleman Owen to win 34-33. Coming into this game, the Thunderbirds’ only win came against the Cal Poly Mustangs on March 13.
NAU won the coin toss and deferred to the Thunderbirds, who elected to receive. After a few strong throws from redshirt sophomore quarterback Justin Miller that led the Thunderbirds to midfield, stops by the NAU defense forced a punt. The Lumberjacks took control for their first drive at their own 12-yard line. The drive ended the same way as Southern Utah's, with NAU punting it back.
This back-and-forth battle on defense continued throughout the first quarter with the biggest play coming from a 30-yard pass from Miller to senior wide receiver Landon Measom on third down.
At the end of the first quarter, redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff Widener entered the game for NAU in relief for Wudtee to try to spark something on offense. During that drive, Southern Utah defensive lineman Drake Knowles went down due to injury, causing a timeout. On the very next play, Widener threw an interception to junior cornerback Jake Narayan who returned the pick back to NAU territory.
The first quarter ended without either team scoring.
Wudtee returned for the Lumberjacks on the ensuing drive, but it resulted in a punt.
Southern Utah found some rhythm on a 37-yard run by Lawson that gave the Thunderbirds strong field position at NAU's 33. Freshman running back Dayne Christiansen would follow up that run with a 10-yard rush of his own. Southern Utah got on the board first as Miller connected with Measom, who beat out redshirt sophomore defensive back Johnathan Phenix in coverage for a 16-yard touchdown with 9:05 left in the second quarter.
On their next drive, Christiansen was tackled by redshirt senior defensive back Morgan Vest on a seven-yard run and the running back was slow to get up with an apparent left knee injury. Trainers looked at his knee on the field before he limped off, but he returned later in the drive to catch a 15-yard pass from Miller that he took to the NAU 2-yard line.
With 56 seconds left in the half, NAU called a timeout in an effort to stop Southern Utah from scoring before halftime, but to no avail. Lawson took a direct snap and dove right into the end zone with 52 seconds left.
With less than a minute in the half, the Lumberjacks desperately needed to get on the board. On second down, Wudtee fired a deep pass to Owen for 50 yards all the way to the Southern Utah goal line. NAU would try to hurry to the line of scrimmage to try to catch Southern Utah off guard. This caused the Thunderbirds to use their final timeout.
NAU handed the ball to sophomore running back George Robinson who would be stuffed by redshirt junior linebacker Quaid Murray. On the very next play, Wudtee found freshman running back Kevin Daniels for an easy 1-yard touchdown pass to cut the Southern Utah lead in half. The score was 14-7 at halftime.
At the half, the Thunderbirds led NAU in total yards by exactly 100 with 260 to the Lumberjack’s 160. Miller also had more passing yards than NAU had total yards as he had 178 through the air alone.
NAU received the ball to start the second half. On third and long, Wudtee found redshirt junior wide receiver Brandon Porter for a 37-yard pass while rolling to his right. The Lumberjack offense turned on the jets and ran their plays fast. The speed proved to be too much for Southern Utah as Robinson hit a hole to rush for 15 yards into the end zone for the first rushing touchdown of the game. The eight-play drive of 80 yards capped off by Robinson would tie the game at 14.
With about five minutes left in the third quarter, Wudtee aired the ball out to find redshirt senior wide receiver Stacy Chukwumezie for a 42-yard gain to the Southern Utah red zone. The Thunderbirds needed a stop at the goal line to avoid falling behind for the first time. After an NAU timeout, Wudtee forced his way into the end zone on third-and-goal to give his team their first lead of the game, 21-14. The score remained there going into the fourth quarter.
Just as Southern Utah seemed to gain momentum, the Lumberjacks forced a huge turnover on defense. Christiansen ran right up the middle of the field into NAU territory for a 19-yard gain, but had the ball stripped by graduate linebacker Tristen Vance and recovered by redshirt senior Carson Taylor to bring the red-hot NAU offense back on the field.
It would take seven plays for the Lumberjacks to reach the end zone for the fourth time. The scoring drive ended with a run by Wudtee as he faked a pass before breaking away for a 17-yard touchdown run.
Despite trailing 14-0 early, the Lumberjacks were able to double up the Thunderbirds and score 28 unanswered points.
With 10 minutes remaining, Southern Utah seemed to have run out of options. Miller’s pass intended for a Thunderbird receiver was picked off by redshirt junior Anthony Sweeney and returned for a touchdown. However, a pair of Lumberjack penalties would nullify the touchdown, but still kept the ball in NAU possession at their own 36-yard line.
Southern Utah’s next drive started with just over seven minutes remaining and the team slowly took the ball to the red zone after a fourth-down conversion and some penalties from the NAU defense. The 15-play drive that lasted over five minutes concluded with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Measom, who was able to put one foot down in the end zone. Southern Utah went for a two-point conversion that was stopped as senior wide receiver Judd Cockett was stuffed on a run that kept the score at 28-20.
While the Thunderbirds were able to come up with a touchdown, the amount of time the drive took gave them almost no time to get the ball back. NAU would get the ball with 2:21 remaining and run the clock out to ice the game and give them their first and only road win of the year.
Wudtee arguably had his best game in his short NAU career as he completed 23 of 35 passes with 289 passing yards and a passing touchdown. He also produced with his legs as he rushed for 38 yards and scored two touchdowns on the ground.
NAU holds onto the Grand Canyon Trophy they won back in their first game of the season against the Thunderbirds in Flagstaff, and will get to keep it until the two meet again next season at the Walkup Skydome on October 16. This will be the last time the two squads meet up as conference rivals with Southern Utah moving to the Western Athletic Conference in 2022.
While Southern Utah officially ends its season with a 1-5 record, the Lumberjacks, sitting at 2-2, still have one game left. Their home game originally scheduled for March 13 against the Idaho Vandals was postponed due to a COVID outbreak within the Idaho program and will be taking place next week on Saturday, April 17 at 1 p.m.
The game can be viewed on Pluto TV Channel 1058.