The Northern Arizona Lumberjacks took on the ultimate challenge in the first week of their 2021 football season – hosting the number one-ranked Sam Houston State Bearkats. NAU head coach Chris Ball described the matchup as a “temperature check” for his squad, which went 3-2 in an abbreviated 2020 season.
The Lumberjacks didn’t exactly run a fever in the 42-16 defeat, falling victim to unforced errors and inconsistent play, but their performance was in no way hypothermic either. At points during the game, NAU outplayed the reigning FCS champions, and the effort of certain position groups provided a strong silver lining. Here are five things that stood out:
Although there were things to like about NAU’s play, untimely mistakes ultimately determined the outcome of the game. Pre-season all-conference kicker Luis Aguilar had an uncharacteristically shaky performance, missing two of his three field goal attempts, including a 53-yarder just before halftime that would have cut Sam Houston State’s lead down to 11 points.
In spite of the missed kick, the Lumberjacks had a chance to narrow their deficit to four points midway through the third quarter after forcing a takeaway on their own goal line. On the ensuing drive, freshman quarterback Jeff Widener threw a costly pick-six with the ball deep in Sam Houston State territory, putting the Bearkats up by 18 and destroying any chance of an NAU comeback.
“It was about six plays [that decided the game],” Ball said. “John Phenix, if he scoops and scores that fumble… the interception, Colby Humphrey could have put his foot in the ground and taken that back… we missed two field goals and then the interception for a touchdown. Those are six plays that if we had back, probably would have changed the game.”
Uncertainty At Quarterback
Leading up to the game, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that senior Keondre Wudtee would have an iron grip on the Lumberjacks’ starting quarterback job. That narrative lasted for a single offensive series, as Wudtee suffered an ankle injury that ended his night and may cause him to miss additional games. Widener handled the bulk of the snaps in his absence, though fellow freshman Cade Millen also saw action and contributed a touchdown of his own despite only throwing three passes. Ball avoided giving any indication as to which quarterback will start next week’s game at South Dakota, and it is possible that Millen and Widener could once again split snaps in that game if Wudtee remains sidelined.
Widener hits Brandon Porter on a 4-yard pass for a TD and NAU gets on the board. 21-7 Sam Houston 2:42 pic.twitter.com/OEN1joU7Ih
— Eric Newman (@enewmanwrites) September 3, 2021
Strong Receiver Play
The inconsistency of NAU’s quarterbacks overshadowed what was a very strong showing from the team’s receiving corps. Senior wideout Stacy Chukwumezie was particularly impressive, snagging six balls for 113 yards and a touchdown, though three of his teammates also logged 30 or more receiving yards on the night. Virtually all of the Lumberjacks’ big plays came through the air, including both of their touchdowns, and they actually outgained Sam Houston State in the passing game. Whichever quarterback ends up running the offense in the immediate future, NAU’s passing attack appears to be in good hands thanks to the reliability of its receivers.
“I’m very happy [with their effort],” Ball said. “We were playing an extremely talented football team and I thought our receivers did a really good job of getting open, especially on the vertical shots. Very impressed with that.”
— NAU Football (@NAU_Football) September 3, 2021
Youth Of Offensive Line
NAU’s offensive line features a number of first-time starters, and their inexperience was apparent at times during the Lumberjacks’ season opener. Gaining yards on the ground was a struggle throughout, and breakdowns in pass protection proved equally costly. Widener faced constant pressure, which resulted in both of his interceptions, including the game sealing pick-six. Such struggles are to be expected from a young unit such as NAU’s, and only time will tell if their shaky play in the opener represents standard growing pains or a legitimate concern.
“We’ve got some young guys playing, so you’re going to have some peaks and valleys in their play,” Ball said. “They went against one of the better fronts we’ll see all year. I thought at times they did well and other times they didn’t. Very inconsistent, so that’s one of the things we’re going to work on.”
HOUSE CALL!! 🏠📞
— Sam Houston Football (@BearkatsFB) September 3, 2021
Running Back Depth
The Lumberjacks’ group of ballcarriers had few opportunities to showcase their abilities in week one, as running lanes were few and far between. However, the even distribution of carries between Kevin Daniels, George Robinson and Draycen Hall is a testament to the breadth of talent that the Lumberjacks possess at the running back position. As the offensive line gains cohesion, NAU’s rushing totals will likely improve, and their assortment of backs could prove tricky for opposing defenses as the season moves along.
“They’re good backs and they’re young,” Ball said. “It’s a process with these young players but I’m seeing great, great improvement in them. We’ve got four guys (including freshman Tyson Grubbs) that we think are good players. It’s just hard to get them all the ball.”
NAU will open a three-game road trip against the South Dakota Coyotes on Sep. 11. Ball said he expects the road trip to be another opportunity for his team to test its resilience.
“It’s a great challenge for us,” he said. “To win this conference, you have to win on the road. I say ‘good,’ we’ve got three games in a row on the road, let’s go play.”