2015 Record: 7-4 (5-3 Big Sky)
The Northern Arizona Lumberjacks will make the trek south down I-17 to face the Sun Devils after a four-year break since the two schools previously met. After losing to the Devils at Sun Devil Stadium 63-6 when last they met in 2012, long-time Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers has gone on to beat nearly 75-percent of the opponents his teams have faced with this year’s team possessing the potential to be the school’s strongest in some time.
The Lumberjacks head into the 2016, Souers 19th as head coach, as the favorite to win the Big Sky Conference by both its coaches and the media, the first time the team has ever received both honors in the same year.
— NAU Football (@NAU_Football) July 19, 2016
What To Look For From The Lumberjacks On Offense
2016 Returning Starters Offense: 6
NAU returns six starters on offense, four of which were named to the preseason All-Big Sky team in quarterback Case Cookus, wide receiver Emmauel Butler, left tackle Jacob Julian, and center Blake Porter. Butler and Cookus were FCS All-Americans last year, with Cookus also being named the FCS National Freshman of the year after breaking.
Cookus lead all FCS quarterbacks with 37 touchdown passes in his and broke the FCS record for touchdown passes thrown in a season by a freshman. He also showed his efficiency for running Souers’ offense by throwing the fewest number of interceptions by any quarterback in the nation with at least 3,000 passing yards, all while breaking the NAU season record for touchdown passes, completion percentage and yards per pass attempt.
Butler, a local standout from Mountain Pointe, broke out during his sophomore year using his 6-foot-3, 210 pound frame to break the NAU single season receiving yards record while tying the school record of 15 touchdown receptions.
The offense will miss the production of running back Casey Jahn and his 1,035 rushing yards. In fact under first year offensive coordinator Tim Plough, Cookus, Butler, and Jahn became the third trio in NAU history to register 3,000 passing yards, 1,000 receiving yards, and 1,000 rushing yards in the same season. So Todd Graham won’t be taking this offense for granted after they managed to score at least 41 points against each of their opponents during the 2015 season.
What To Look For From The Lumberjacks On Defense
2016 Returning Starters Defense: 5
The Lumberjacks faced one FBS opponent in 2015, the Arizona Wildcats, who set school records with their 77 points scored and 499 rushing yards in the 64 point victory against the Lumberjacks. In fact, it’s been tough sledding even if you take the past four seasons of games against each of their yearly FBS opponents as the defense has given up an average of 326 rushing yards at an average of 8 yards per attempt. And while no one is expecting NAU to pull off the upset against the Devils at Sun Devil Stadium, improving their rush defense just might be their best bet at keeping things close for longer than a half.
Andy Thompson heads into his eighth as the defensive coordinator of a team whose defensive line will be its most experienced unit coming back in 2016 with Lorenzo Melvin and John Herrero its two returning starters. Losing cornerback Marcus Alford and his 13 pass breakups will certainly hurt the Lumberjacks as the Devils look to break in a relatively green group of pass catchers, not to mention a brand new quarterback.
“Starting the year with a Pac-12 opponent in ASU will be a fun game for the state of Arizona,” said Souers during the off-season. Not sure fun is what you’re looking for when you’ve only made it to the FCS playoffs once in the previous 12 years. But the Lumberjacks offense should only be more potent in their second year under Plough’s offensive system giving the Sun Devils defense a good warm-up on opening night with a game against the high scoring Texas Tech offense a week away. How the ASU defense defends the big-bodied Butler will help either build confidence among an inexperienced secondary or add more suspense going into the Sept. 10 game against the Red Raiders.
ASU success under Todd Graham has been highly reliant on winning the turnover battle. Over the past four years, Northern Arizona has lost the turnover battle against its four FBS opponents to the tune of 10-to-2.
Sure this game may be over by halftime and the majority of the Devils starts could be out to start the second half, but there are still plenty of reasons to pay attention to the entirety of this contest regardless of how bad the score gets out of hand.