The outcomes of the Arizona Wildcats’ and Northern Arizona Lumberjacks’ respective football seasons may very well rest on the result of Saturday’s game in Tucson.
The two winless squads, each fresh on the heels of a painful blowout loss, will do battle at Arizona Stadium in hopes of avoiding an 0-3 start to the year. Arizona enters as the favorite despite its active fourteen-game losing streak, but Flagstaff’s finest have no plans to let their cross-state opponents walk away with an easy win.
With nearly 7️⃣0️⃣ players from the state of Arizona, this one just means more.#WinState48 🌵🪓 #CactusJacks pic.twitter.com/yMATe5PoLY
— NAU Football (@NAU_Football) September 14, 2021
“This is an important game for both teams and both programs,” NAU play-by-play broadcaster Mitch Strohman told The Brad Cesmat Show. “The Cats, they’re trying to get things moving in something that resembles a positive direction. They’re desperate and they’re playing an FCS team in NAU, so the expectation for them is that they should be able to beat us.”
Unlike Arizona, whose losing streak dates back to Dec. 2019, NAU entered the year with ambitions of being a winning team. Those ambitions sustained a major blow when starting quarterback Keondre Wudtee was sidelined with an ankle injury on the first drive of the season, forcing freshman Jeff Widener into action. Wudtee remains out for the time being, and the Widener experiment has been a mixed bag in all regards for the Lumberjacks.
“We came off of a very successful spring season,” Strohman said. “We went 3-2, we were one single Hail Mary pass away from being 4-1 and co-champs of the Big Sky Conference. We started against the number one team in the country at the FCS level, the defending national champion Sam Houston Bearkats, and we were with those guys for about two and a half quarters. Where are we right now? We’re looking for that first win. It’s huge to get that first win on the scoreboard now.”
Despite NAU’s slow start, Strohman says that the Lumberjacks are still on track for success under third-year head coach Chris Ball, who holds a 7-12 record since taking over NAU’s program. Sustained winning continues to elude the Lumberjacks, but Strohman points to improved recruiting tactics and better team preparation habits as signs of progress under the Ball regime.
“The road to success is always under construction.” 🚧#KeepChoppin 🪓 #GameWeek pic.twitter.com/Rmi2sjuKhT
— NAU Football (@NAU_Football) August 29, 2021
“He has made enormous progress, I think,” Strohman said. “He came in here in Flagstaff and he had a lot of work to do. It was a program change, and that takes a little bit of time. Are we there, are we halfway there? I think that’s debatable and you can look at that from a number of different angles. Personally, I think we are more than halfway there.”
NAU may well be headed towards a resurgence thanks to the contributions of Ball and his staff, winning Saturday’s contest is the task at hand for the Lumberjacks, and it will not come easily. Barring another sloppy performance from Arizona, the Lumberjacks’ path to victory will likely need to be paved with contributions from some of the team’s unsung heroes, and Strohman has noted three players in particular who could have a sizable impact on the game.
“We have a unanimous first team all-Big Sky safety in Morgan Vest,” he said. “He is an impact player on defense, and I mean that in both the literal and the intangible sense. On offense, I’ll point to… wide receiver Hendrix Johnson. He has a great sense of where the ball is, great route runner… reliable, dependable, not flashy, just solid as bedrock. One more guy I’ll mention is our starting tight end Matthew Kempton, one of the most reliable tight ends I’ve seen in this program in a long time.”
Saturday’s game will be NAU’s last chance to build momentum heading into its conference schedule. A win would re-establish the Lumberjacks as a threat to compete for the Big Sky Conference title, and give them an excellent opportunity to get back to .500 in their opening game of conference play, while a loss would relegate them to 0-3 and leave them with no margin for error the rest of the way. The stakes will be high and the terrain hostile, but NAU must overcome the barriers that stand before them if it hopes to salvage its season.