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NAU Jacks open as road warriors
The Northern Arizona football team should have all the momentum it needs going into today’s Big Sky Conference opener against the Portland State Vikings.
After opening its home season with a 58-13 win over Fort Lewis, the Lumberjacks will be looking to continue to mix the running game with the passing assault, have worked on better securing the ball and are hoping to keep the Vikings’ rushing yards to a minimum with their conference-leading run defense.
The Lumberjacks hope to re-enact what they did last week when they sprinted off to a quick start – burning the Skyhawks for a pair of touchdowns in seven offensive plays – today against PSU. NAU head coach Jerome Souers said the team that gets off to the better start will steal the momentum.
“If you look at the history of our games with Portland State they’ve always been absolute battles,” Souers said. “This game will be a lot different than last year. They’re in their second year with a new head coach and they have a better idea of what they want to do.”
Souers said the ball bounced NAU’s way last year during a 62-14 win, but added that the score wasn’t indicative of the way the Vikings played the game, and that this year’s game will be a bigger challenge.
“Both teams are physical and like to run the ball and both teams take pride in defense and rally to the ball,” he said. “Looking at their first game their better at what they’re doing than this time a year ago.”
Portland State jumped all over Southern Oregon for a 52-0 non-conference win, and the Vikings scored six touchdowns on the ground as part of a 335-yard rushing day.
With the Lumberjacks leading the Big Sky in rush defense – NAU has only allowed an average of 54 yards rushing per game – Souers said the Jacks defense hasn’t been truly tested on the ground yet, but will be today against the Vikings.
“Our run defense is getting better, but this early in the season stats can be misleading,” he said. “Arizona threw the ball, and last week Fort Lewis got into trouble and had to throw the ball, so we’ve seen a lot more passing than run game, but this team will be committed to the run, so we’re going to see our true run test today.”
Senior defensive end and one of the NAU defensive leaders, Isaac Bond, said the team is looking to start and finish strong, and stopping the run means stopping PSU quarterback Connor Kavanaugh.
“Their quarterback is a fast guy and that’s why they (the Vikings) had so many rushing yards last week; they were able to mix things up,” Bond said. “If we can contain the quarterback we’ll be able to contain the run and only allow 50 yards like we usually do.”
Bond added that defense is confident after having made huge strides each week of the young season.
“We’ve come a long way, even with the few injuries we have right now, but we’re just fighting through like usual. Everyone’s doing a good job,” he said.
The Vikings are also confident in their defense, and Souers said the Jacks expect to see some different things out of them.
“They like to fly around and will be a challenge defensively,” he said. “They also had a bye week to prepare for us, so we need to get into a rhythm of (offensive) sequences that will get us off to a good start.”
That will mean getting the running game off to a good start, as well as implementing the high-powered passing attack for the Jacks.
Giovannie Dixon lead NAU against the Skyhawks with 149 yards on just six carries. Dixon said that alone says a lot about their ability to run the ball.
“It says a lot about our offensive line,” he added. “It shows that we’re getting our blocks and being explosive, and I’m reading the blocks well, which is what I’m looking for.”
With Dixon sharing carries with starter Zach Bauman, there’s always a fresh set of legs in the NAU backfield, and both runners – who combined for 222 rushing yards last week – bring something different to the table for the Jacks.
“We have two different styles of running, where when you put him in he does this, and then it’s something else so we’re always keeping teams on their toes,” Dixon said.
And being able to throw the ball with a lot of success will also be helpful to get NAU off on the right foot.
“The best surprise of our offense so far is that our passing game has proven to be very efficient and effective,” Souers said. “It complements what we’re doing with our run game, so as long as we make good decisions our offensive production will get better each week.”
Playing a team on the road does have its disadvantages, however, and NAU will have to set the tone of the game early to get the momentum advantage.
“It’s tough to win on the road, and we’re going into a hostile situation at their place against an energized team,” Souers said. “It’ll be important to withstand the early flurry that goes with that to keep ourselves in the ballgame.”
Dixon said the team doesn’t care who or where it’s playing, they just want to win.
“We’re looking to get a huge win, not just a regular win,” Dixon said. “We want to blow them out and make a statement and let everybody know we’re here to play in the Big Sky.”
The game, which will be Souers’ 150th at the helm of the Jacks, will kick off at 5:07 this evening.