NAU looks to snap UA losing streak

Arizona’s Nick Wilson runs the ball against NAU in 2015. The Wildcats won 77-13, setting the single-game scoring record and total offense standard (792 yards). (Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics)

Arizona’s Nick Wilson runs the ball against NAU in 2015. The Wildcats won 77-13, setting the single-game scoring record and total offense standard (792 yards). (Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics)

Generally a lot more than I-17 and I-10 separate Arizona football and Northern Arizona football.

The Wildcats haven’t lost to the Lumberjacks since 1931, winning 12 games in a row over NAU and going 8-0 against them since 2002.

UA has outscored NAU 321-82 over the last eight games and in the last meeting, a 77-13 Tucson triumph in 2015, the Wildcats set single-game school records for scoring and total offense (792).

Arizona has won 16 consecutive home openers and UA coach Rich Rodriguez is 11-0 at home against non-conference opponents as the head man in Tucson.

Plus the last time the UA’s defense, which hasn’t exactly been Desert Swam caliber of late, recorded a shut out was 2013 against the Jacks in a 35-0 Arizona win.

The Wildcats host NAU at 8 p.m. on the Pac-12 Networks on Saturday to open the season for both sides.

Arizona plays in the top tier FBS and at its cool table, a Power Five Conference. NAU plays in the FCS, which is still Division I but quite limited compared to the FBS.

FBS schools must average at least 15,000 fans a game and have 85 scholarships, compared to 63 for the FCS. Plus Power Five teams pay their players, something not even other FBS schools can afford.

So surely NAU is doomed right? They’ll just be another FCS victim on the FBS’s ledger right?

Not so fast my friend. This is definitely the year the Lumberjacks can end the streak.

Arizona is 13-1 against NAU, with the Lumberjacks lone win coming in 1932 in Phoenix. UA is 12-0 against their instate rivals in Tucson and 1-0 in Flagstaff.

More and more FCS teams scalp the FBS big boys nowadays. Last year 10 FCS teams beat their big brothers and 16 did in 2013, the record.

Washington State has lost to FCS teams the last two years and last year they almost won the Pac-12 North.

The days of FCS teams being an automatic win for FBS teams and traveling to the higher tier teams for just a paycheck are long gone.

NCAA.com and Athlon have written articles about potential FCS vs. FBS upsets. Everyone seems to like to see David beat Goliath, well unless it’s your team taking on David.

Last year Arizona trailed FCS Grambling State 21-3 in the third quarter before escaping with a 31-21 win. Had the Tigers’ quarterback DeVante Kincade not gotten hurt, Grambling could certainly have gotten the upset in Tucson.

Last year the Wildcats missed a bowl game for the first time since 2011.

The UA doesn’t have the stat, but it looks like they haven’t lost to a current FCS team in decades. Pessimists (plus NAU and ASU fans) would say they’re due.

NAU is 8-51 all-time against FBS/Division I-A opponents (the FBS’s original name) since 1957. They have dropped their last four FBS games but beat UNLV on the road in 2012.

UA was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South by the media, 48 points behind projected fifth place ASU, who the Wildcats beat 56-35 last year without throwing a pass in the second half. Morale is so low in Tucson that Rodriguez, who led the Wildcats to bowls in four of his five seasons at UA and the 2014 Pac-12 South title, is on the hot seat.

UA, who very rarely gives out gifts to fans like this, is giving out Rob Gronkowski bobble heads at the game. If there was a game to give them out it would be their second home game, since in years where there isn’t historical hurricanes, games against Houston don’t draw much buzz and there’s always a strong Lumberjack contingent at the Tucson UA/NAU games.

But in reality Arizona slumping is not the reason why NAU can pull off the upset. For all the nay sayers, it doesn’t seem likely that the Wildcats will got 3-9 again this year.

The defense pretty much has to improve and if they face injuries like losing their top two quarterbacks and having to use wide receivers at running back again, they’re better equipped for that.

The reason why the Lumberjacks can win in Tucson is the Lumberjacks.

NAU quarterback Case Cookus is among the best in the FCS and had a 13-1 touchdown to interception ratio before he suffered a season ending injury last year. His top target senior wide receiver Emmanuel Butler, is rewriting the NAU record books.

So where is the UA’s biggest weakness? On defense.

This game is also personal and not because a lot of Tucsonans chose to go to NAU. Northern Arizona has long recruited Tucson and their current squad is full of players with chips on their shoulders, ignored by Arizona.

NAU freshman Freshman Max Michalczik is the son of Arizona offensive line coach Jim Michalczik. NAU senior Byron Evans, is the son of Byron Evans, the 1986 Pac-10 Defensive Player at the UA.

All in all, there are eight Tucson natives on the Lumberjacks roster. It’s natural to want to go to the Power Five School instead of the directional school but one Lumberjack has a unique axe to grind. Junior Jake Casteel’s father’s father is Jeff Casteel, Arizona’s defensive coordinator from 2012-15. UA passed on Jake Casteel and later gave a scholarship to Rich Rod’s son Rhett. Though to be fair and to the delight of Mingus fans, Rhett Rod did torch Gilbert Higley last year.

As if getting passed on isn’t bad enough, his father was fired last offseason and last year the UA’s defense gave up 38.3 yards a game and 469.3 years per game.

Jake Casteel is on the watch list for All-Big Sky and he’ll definitely be one to watch on Saturday.

History says the Lumberjacks will be in for a long drive back to Flagstaff after the game, but this year could be one where it will be fun.

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