FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Looking to direct their focus back onto the field ahead of Saturday’s Big Sky Conference opener in California, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks' (0-2) preparation for the Cal Poly Mustangs (0-3) rolled along Tuesday.
With Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers calling the Mustangs the best 0-3 team in the conference, the matchup of winless schools is expected to be a battle — as many of the two schools’ meetings have been in recent years.
“They have had a bye too, so they are going to be rested up and they are going to be hungry like we are,” Souers said. “They are a well coached team and we want to come in with our best foot forward. It’ll be a classic Big Sky matchup.”
In three meetings since Cal Poly joined the Big Sky, each game has come down to the fourth quarter. Northern Arizona fell 42-34 in 2012 before winning 17-13 in 2013 and 38-35 in 2014. While Marcus Alford’s 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown put the Lumberjacks ahead early in the fourth quarter in San Luis Obispo in 2013, it was Chase Cartwright’s pass to Casey Jahn with just 21 seconds left that lifted Northern Arizona to victory in the Walkup Skydome a year later.
“Hopefully we can keep ourselves in this game to the point where we can make quality plays in the fourth quarter to find a way to win on the road,” Souers said.
After spending the bye week recovering from vice president for intercollegiate athletics Lisa Campos’ announcement of his departure from the program following his 20th season at the helm, Souers said the Lumberjacks enjoyed the chance to focus on the game ahead.
“It was a real long week in a lot of ways. For our players, to sense that the game is just around the corner, the enthusiasm and excitement rebuilds,” Souers said. “If you look at how much we have been out practicing compared to how many games we have played, it is really lopsided.”
After missing part of the Western Illinois loss and practice time last week, both starting cornerbacks Maurice Davison and Khalil Dorsey retook their spots on the first-team defense.
Calling their returns crucial for a defense preparing for the heavy rushing, triple-option offense of the Mustangs, Souers also said the status of defensive tackle Jalen Goss and receiver Emmanuel Butler was questionable.
Locked into the starting lineup now in his junior season, tight end Jonathan Baldwin will get his first chance to return home as a college athlete.
A native of Paso Robles, a half hour north of San Luis Obispo, Baldwin joined Northern Arizona two years after it played in California’s central coast. Catching 49 passes for 673 yards and five touchdowns while playing for the Bearcats, Baldwin won a CIF championship in his senior season.
While he played in 11 games as a freshman and sophomore, with eight starts a year ago, Baldwin said the timing of the game is perfect for where he is in his career.
“You always know there's an opportunity,” Baldwin said of the chance to play near home depending on the Big Sky’s schedule makers, “but I am really happy it happened as I'm starting now. I get the opportunity to show fans that I am actually playing.”
Catching 14 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore, Baldwin entered his junior year atop the tight ends depth chart and has caught three passes for 67 yards and a touchdown through his first two games of the season.
After waiting behind R.J. Rickert as a true freshman in 2015, Baldwin took hold of the position the following spring and spent 2016 as the team’s main starter while working as a secondary target for Case Cookus and Blake Kemp.
Baldwin currently sits third in yards, with receivers William Morehand and Chancellor Brewington just behind at 65 and 64 yards respectively, as the offense continues to find its footing under new coordinator Brian Sheppard.
“Once RJ left, it was a big part of maintaining what I earned in the spring,” Baldwin said of earning the starting job. “Work my butt off in the spring, and since then it has been putting in the work on and off the field to maintain a starting spot.”