NAU @ Arizona 9/18/2021 Recap - Defense, Punting, and a Load of Sadness
On a cool, mostly overcast Saturday night, two 0-2 teams came to play at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Arizona and engaged in a game that can be summed up in one word: ugly.
Coming into the game, the NAU Lumberjacks had dropped their first two games of the year in blowout fashion, being blasted by Sam Houston at home 42-16 in week one and South Dakota on the road 34-7. Their starting QB, Jeff Widener had been struggling with interceptions, throwing two each game, with a pick six occurring in both games.
On the home side, Arizona had taken the loss against Brigham Young (BYU) to start the year in Las Vegas at Allegiant Stadium 24-16, a close result. The wheels fell of the bus at home against San Diego State, however, as they were throttled 38-14 with the offense falling silently most of the game. The experiment with Gunner Cruz and Will Plummer sharing starting QB duties seemed to be failing, as head coach Jedd Fisch named Plummer the starter in the week leading up to the game.
With this in mind, it seemed quite possible the game could become an awful one, and awful it became indeed.
With rain falling on and off to start the game, it quickly became evident that punting would be common, the first three drives resulting one. It took until 5:13 were left in the first quarter for the first points to come from a 31-yard field goal by Arizona kicker Lucas Havrisik. Will Plummer then went deep and found Boobie Curry on a 49-yard completion with 2:05 left in the first to extend the lead, making it 10-0. By the time the first quarter ended, NAU had fumbled once but recovered, thrown an interception, and mustered only 28 yards, the defense holding them tightly.
The second quarter largely turned into a defensive slog with more poor protection of the ball. Havrisik kicked a 24-yarder with 13:05 left in the quarter to extend the lead 13-0. These would be the last points Arizona would score for nearly 31 minutes. NAU would fumble twice more, losing the ball once to the Wildcats. Arizona would respond by fumbling as well. The Arizona defense would secure its second interception of the game, but would not score from it. RJ Martinez also came in for NAU, replacing a struggling Widener. Late in the second, near their own endzone, Plummer would throw his first interception of the game, a shot right at Lumberjack DB Brady Shough that was returned for six with 1:48 left in the half. Going into the half, the score was now 13-7, and the nightmare was beginning.
Coming into the second half, both teams seemed set to try and build momentum. A change in color commentating later, the third quarter began. Penalties and punting became the theme of the quarter, especially targeting calls. Two Arizona Wildcats, Mo Diallo and Jaxen Turner, would be ejected for helmet to helmet contact and confirmed targeting, thus ending their nights and, for now, making them unable to play in next week's game @ Oregon. Neither team would score until there was 4:16 left in the quarter, this time from the NAU offense. Taking advantage of good field position and Turner's ejection, they drove down to score on a 12-yard rush by RB Kevin Daniels. NAU now led 14-13, a lead that would ultimately hold.
The fourth quarter started with a staple of the game: punting. Will Plummer would throw his second interception of the game midway through the quarter and ultimately be pulled from the game. The NAU found its groove early, taking 10 plays to push 60 yards and kill five minutes from the clock, RJ Martinez finding Hendrix Johnson in the endzone on a 9-yard pass with 7:53 left in the game. It was now 21-13 NAU. In an attempt to shake up the offense, Fisch put in third-string QB Jordan McCloud into the game, surprising many who expected Gunner Cruz instead. The offense would stall on its first drive but finally find its legs, covering 85 yards in seven plays to score on a 3-yard pass from McCloud to Curry. With 2:16 left on the clock and only one timeout, Fisch went for two, ultimately failing as a pass intended for BJ Casteel hit the turf. A kickoff and a first down through the run game later, it was over.
The final score was 21-19, the 14-game losing streak against Arizona was over. NAU won their first game against the Wildcats since 1932. The 26-point underdogs had gotten the upset and rushed the field.
In a game where NAU only mustered 240 yards in total offense and Arizona put up 363, the team with the better discipline came out on top. Arizona committed seven penalties for 70 yards while NAU only gave up four penalties for 30 yards. Both teams were dreadful on third down, NAU ending the night 4/15 and Arizona 3/14. NAU's punter Derek Arnson punted nine times while Arizona's Kyle Ostendorp punted eight times.
Arizona ended the game once again without eclipsing 100 yards with a player, RB Drake Anderson only reaching 72. WR Stanley Berryhill III ended the night with 94 yards receiving on 11 catches, 20 on the ground on two runs, and 73 in punt returning, fighting for extra yards each time. Will Plummer ended his day 19/34, 1 TD, 2 INTs and 191 yards. Jordan McCloud finished 6/7, 66 yards, and 1 TD. Boobie Curry, the only Wildcat to find paydirt, ended with 3 receptions, 55 yards, and 2 TDs.
NAU's Kevin Daniels ended his night with 27 carries, 127 yards, and a TD, ultimately proving a key factor in bleeding the clock against the Wildcats. Jeff Widener only went 1/4 with 4 yards and an INT. His replacement, RJ Martinez went 11/16, 88 yards, 1 TD to 1 INT and picked up 43 yards on the ground on 6 attempts. None of NAU's receivers passed 50 yards.
In the end, NAU played the better game, despite it being an all around awful match. Arizona's losing streak extends to 15 and the days counting from their last victory on October 5, 2019 in Colorado continue to tick up. Now it ends up the time for Arizona to reflect and see if they can right the ship, lest another winless season end up in their future.
In the immediate future, NAU continues their road trip, heading out to Northern Colorado. Arizona meanwhile leaves their home in the desert to face off against the now #3 Oregon Ducks in Eugene.
Cover Photo Source: Associated Press/Rick Scuteri