LJ football

NAU fell to 4-6 on Saturday and is now 3-4 in the Big Sky Conference with one game remaining in the season. The Lumberjacks haven’t had the type of year they were hoping for, but are looking to finish on a high note with a win against Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. 

“You always want to finish the right way and send the seniors off with a win,” head coach Chris Ball said.  

After losing two quarterbacks, freshman RJ Martinez, and redshirt freshman Jeff Widener to injury two weeks ago, NAU’s offense was never really able to get going against Montana in the 30-3 loss on Saturday

Widener had season-ending surgery last week but Martinez remains a question mark for Saturday’s game. 

Cal Poly is 2-8 on the season and snapped an eight-game losing streak last week, getting a 32-29 win over Idaho State at home. The Mustangs are now 1-6 in the Big Sky, avoiding the completely defeated conference season. They avoided last place in the Big Sky as Southern Utah ended its final season in the conference 0-8.

The Mustangs rank second-worst in the conference in both points per game (14.8) and points allowed per game (38.6). They are also second-worst in the conference in both yards per game (299.3) and yards allowed per game (456.6). Cal Poly averages the least rush yards per game in the Big Sky with only 78.5 rushing yards per game. The Mustangs also struggle defending the rush, allowing the most rushing yards per game in the conference allowing slightly more than 205 rushing yards per game.

If NAU can get their rush game rolling, Cal Poly might be in for a very long day. NAU has won every game that freshman running back Kevin Daniels has rushed for 100 or more yards. With 866 yards on the season, Daniels is just 134 short of breaking the 1,000-yard mark — a feat that hasn’t been accomplished by an NAU running back in six years. He’s rushed for more than that once this season when he ran for 177 yards against Idaho. 

Cal Poly’s path to victory last week against Idaho State was led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Spencer Brasch, out of Higley High School in Gilbert, Arizona. Brasch was high school teammates with NAU’s redshirt freshman receiver Coleman Owen and freshman running back Draycen Hall. Brasch went 25 of 50 passing last week for 233 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. If Cal Poly wants to have success against NAU, Brasch is going to need to replicate last week’s performance.    

NAU’s passing defense has been prone to allowing big games this season with the secondary hampered by injuries. The Lumberjacks are giving up the most passing yards per game (285) in the Big Sky and have given up the fifth-most passing touchdowns (17). However, NAU is top four in the conference in interceptions (11), abridging for the shortcomings with takeaways in the secondary. Brasch will need to protect the football in his efforts to lead the team with a heavy passing attack, but it is not impossible to throw the ball against NAU. 

The Lumberjacks’ graduate special teams unit, featuring kicker Luis Aguilar, punter DJ Arnson, and long snapper Justin Hathoot, will be taking the field together for the final time. Arnson will end his career as NAU’s all-time leader in punting yards, adding 432 yards to his total last week, now with 10,722 yards in his career. The All-American trio will go down in history as one of the most talented cohesive units in NAU program history. 

Cal Poly’s freshman kicker Jaden Ohlsen was awarded Big Sky special teams player of the week for drilling two field goals including the game-winner with four seconds left against Idaho State last week.

The Mustangs’ only other win this season came week one against the University of San Diego 28-17. Brasch threw for over 300 yards with two touchdowns and no picks. 

Cal Poly has needed Brasch to put up big numbers and protect the football to get wins this season. It’s going to come down to whether or not NAU’s secondary can get stops and potentially turnovers to stop the Mustangs’ attack. 

NAU and Cal Poly were supposed to play during the 2020-2021 spring season but with limited players available due to COVID-19, Cal Poly conceded the remainder of the season. 

NAU leads the all-time series against Cal Poly 11-2 dating back to 1935 when NAU won the first meeting, 15-12. The last time these teams met was in 2018 when Cal Poly got the win in Flagstaff 38-28. NAU’s last win came the year before on the road, 28-10. 

This is the first time NAU has played Cal Poly since Ball took over the program as head coach in 2019. Beau Baldwin, the head coach for the Mustangs took over following the 2019 season, coaching in his first full season this year and inherently his first game against NAU this week. It will be interesting to see how these teams play each other with a relative lack of familiarity.

On the defensive side of the ball for NAU, graduate linebackers Harrison Beemiller and Tristen Vance are both appearing in their final game. The duo have been among NAU’s most consistent playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. 

“In my room especially, Vance and Beemiller are playing really good football,” defensive coordinator Jerry Partridge said. “They’re probably two of the most consistent performers as of anybody that we have right now. I love to see that, I love to see seniors go out on a bang where they’re playing and they’re peaking. Either one of those guys could end up getting some all-conference honors because they’re up there in tackles.”

Vance currently ranks ninth in total tackles in the Big Sky with 82. Beemiller is 22nd in the Big Sky with 7.5 tackles for loss as a linebacker, the majority of the top of that list is made up of defensive lineman. 

With NAU struggling against ranked opponents over the past two weeks and Cal Poly coming off of a win, this isn’t a game NAU can take too lightly. However, coming off some tough opponents may better prepare the team for this game. 

Trap games do exist but NAU is doing everything to ensure that isn’t something that affects them.

“I think our effort has been really good,” Ball said. “We’ve had to play a lot of guys, I think that’s a good thing. Five out of our six losses right now are to top sixteen football teams so we understand what it’s going to take to compete at a high level and I think that’s something that’s going to help us in the future.” 

Sam Houston State, who NAU lost to week one is currently ranked No. 1 in the country. South Dakota, NAU’s week two loss, is No. 16. Sacramento State is currently No. 11, UC Davis is No. 10 and Montana is No. 7. Two other Big Sky teams that were not on NAU’s schedule are also in the top five: Eastern Washington at No. 5 and Montana State at No. 3. 

It’s the final week of the season and the defense is expecting Cal Poly to empty the clip, call-wise. 

“We’re counting on them throwing everything at us but the kitchen sink,” Partridge said. “I think we’ll see multiple trick plays, we’ll see some things we haven’t seen, I think they’re going to try mixing up tempo on us, I think we may see some wildcat stuff. Last Saturday we gave up some big plays in the early downs, but we played really good third-down defense, really good red zone defense, and good run defense. Those are the things we have to build on, to minimize the big plays this Saturday.” 

The NAU football season finale kicks off Saturday at 6:05 p.m. MST. As always streaming is on ESPN+ and listening is available on the NAU Athletics website

Coach Ball shared his sentiment going into the game.

“We just got to end on a high note and have some momentum going into winter conditioning,” Ball said.

 A big win on Saturday would send NAU in the right direction looking towards the future.

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