Northern Arizona University brings with it certain constants, like a stout running back, a gun-slinging quarterback and a slightly terrifying drive through Black Canyon to Flagstaff.
If you’re the Griz, you can also expect a close game.
That the Lumberjacks have lost 23 of 24 football games against the Montana Grizzlies, who take on NAU Saturday at 1:30 p.m. MDT in UM’s homecoming game, is amazing. The last three games came down to the final minute, and Montana escaped with a 24-21 win two years ago on a TD pass with five seconds left.
Last year’s game ended with UM up 28-24 and several of NAU’s main men – like quarterback Cary Grossart and running back Zach Bauman – are back for another shot at the Griz.
“They’re an excellent football team,” Griz coach Mick Delaney said of the Lumberjacks, who lost Grossart and Bauman early in their opening 63-6 loss at Arizona State, and played Bauman sparingly in a 69-0 win over Division II Fort Lewis last week. “They have 15 starters back, they have excellent speed on the outside and they have the best running back, supposedly, in the Big Sky Conference.”
Bauman is listed at 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, though one opposing coach has pegged him at 5-7. Either way he is a tough tackle.
“He has good size,” said Delaney. “He’s a strong kid but he has excellent speed. He’s a special guy and they only come along every once in a while.”
“He’s everything you could ask for in a running back,” added Griz linebacker John Kanongata’a. “He can juke you out. We have to contain him. He likes to bounce it outside so we have to contain him inside the box and let everyone else get to him.”
Grossart hasn’t played since NAU’s opener but is apparently ready to go. Bauman had just five carries last week – for 134 yards – and like Grossart has a capable backup in Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson, a transfer from Cal.
“There’s not too much of a drop off from No. 1 to No. 2,” Kanongata’a said.
NAU lost some speed from 2011 in receiver Khalil Paden, but head coach Jerome Souers has called his receiving corps better than last year’s. Nick Cole, an Oregon transfer, is averaging 20.2 yards for his six catches so far. Ify Umodu has two TDs among his team-high eight catches.
Austin Shanks has four catches for 30 yards and has also taken two punts to the house for the Jacks.
The Griz have been stout against the run so far but Grossart, the Big Sky’s top-rated passer in 2011, can hit a play-action pass or two.
“I’ve seen him make some really good throws down field,” Kanongata’a said. “And I’ve seen him run, so we’ve got to prepare for both.”
On defense the Lumberjacks generally line up in a 4-3 but have a lot of wrinkles. Defensive end Jarret Bilbrey mentioned that, “This will be a better week to play ‘under,’ ” meaning gear things toward UM’s short passing game. But you never know.
Montana’s passing attack stepped into the background during a 34-14 win over Liberty last week. The run game, though, was solid.
Senior running backs Dan Moore and Peter Nguyen have a few dents and scratches but practiced this week. Fans could see more of Jordan Canada, who played a critical role in beating NAU a year ago.
Consistency is key. Freshman quarterback Trent McKinney impressed early and often this season, but didn’t complete a long or medium pass last week.
“Trent’s got his feet wet now, and is really starting to control this offense,” said receiver Bryce Carver, who with eight catches is tied for second on the Griz. “We just had a little struggle in our passing game, but it is an ongoing process. The good news is we still rushed for 200 and some yards.
“When we put a full game together our offense is going to be pretty deadly.”
There’s no time like the present, against an NAU team hungry for a landmark win. Montana has won 14 straight games against the Lumberjacks, and 19 straight homecomings.
There are constants behind those numbers.
“Every time we look at them, they play hard and play fast and with great effort,” NAU offensive tackle Trey Gilleo said of the Griz. “They’re all incredibly gifted. We obviously played them really tough, really close. It’s very competitive with them and they’re a great team.
“We’re all looking forward to it, and we’re ready to get it on.”
QUICK KICKS: Bauman has 541 career carries for NAU. The school record is 720 by Marcus King from 1998-01. Alex Henderson had 667 carries from 2006-09. … UM is still at the bottom of the Big Sky in turnover margin, at minus-1 per game. … Receiver Brandon Babineaux, a UNLV transfer, has yet to catch a pass for the Jacks. … Chris Cartwright has thrown a team-high 79 passes for NAU, completing 37 for 461 yards. … UM’s Zack Wagenmann and Tonga Takai are among five Big Sky players with two sacks on the young season. Only Southern Utah’s Cody Larsen (3) and MSU’s Caleb Schreibeis (2.5) have more.
Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247, at email@example.com or @Fritz_Neighbor.