After a blowout loss to No. 6 UC Davis at home last Saturday, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks hope to avoid a similar result against another top-10 foe in the Walkup Skydome.
NAU (4-5, 3-3 Big Sky) will host No. 9 Montana following a 40-24 defeat to the Aggies.
The Lumberjacks kept things tight in the first half, and even led UC Davis 17-11 midway through the second quarter. But from that point on, it was all Aggies. UC Davis (8-1, 5-1 Big Sky) outscored NAU 29-7 the remainder of the game to increase its winning streak to three games.
While no excuses can be made for NAU’s defense poor performance in the second half, the offense was not expected to do much after losing two important pieces. Freshman quarterback RJ Martinez and redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff Widener both suffered injuries in the first half that forced them to sit out the remainder of the game.
Martinez finished 7-of-10 for 90 yards with one passing touchdown and one rushing while Widener only led one Lumberjacks drive before exiting. Freshman Niko Haen replaced Widener and performed as well in his collegiate debut.
Haen threw 7-of-14 for 76 yards to go along with a 23-yard scramble and led NAU to a touchdown drive halfway through the fourth quarter.
“Niko came in and did a nice job,” head coach Chris Ball said after the game. “Proud of the way he came in and came to respond to adversity.”
Despite the result, the Phoenix, Arizona native and Sunnyslope product was happy to get that first game under his belt.
“I’m just doing what I’m coached to do,” Haen said. “Some plays I had to create…my feet are getting a little happy since it’s my first action ever. But proud of the way the guys rallied behind me…just felt good to get out there.”
It’s only going to tougher for the young quarterback, however, as a good Grizzlies team comes to Flagstaff this weekend.
Montana (7-2, 4-2 Big Sky) is currently on a three-game winning streak after narrowly escaping Southern Utah 20-19 at home. The Lumberjacks easily took care of the Thunderbirds 59-35 at the Walkup Skydome on October 16.
NAU shouldn’t take the Grizzlies lightly, though. The team from Missoula, Montana is still ranked in the top-10, and they upset the Washington Huskies in Seattle to start the season.
Montana leads the all-time series against the Lumberjacks and won the most recent affair 17-15 in 2017. It has also been victorious in three out the last four matchups.
But there’s a catch.
All of those game mentioned were at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. NAU has won the last two matchups in Flagstaff (45-34 in 2016 and 34-16 2013), and both times the Grizzlies were ranked in the top-10.
So even if Ball is forced to play his third-string quarterback, Montana could very well be on upset alert.
And while upsetting the No. 9 team in the country would be great, that’s not the end goal for the Lumberjacks. Just like for most if not all teams, the goal is to have a shot at competing for a national championship. NAU hasn’t made the playoffs since 2017 and haven’t under Ball.
While the chances at playing in the postseason are slim with a sub .500 record with two games left, the Lumberjacks might still have an opportunity if they take care of Montana at home and Cal Poly (1-8, 0-6 Big Sky) on the road.
NAU squares off against the Grizzlies 1 p.m. (Arizona time) Saturday. It can be streamed on ESPN Plus.