Northern Arizona football coach Jerome Souers (right) had the kind of "off-season" that coaches dream of -- in nightmares. The crash of the Arizona economy created rumors the school was considering dropping football, and NAU President John Haeger told the Board of Regents that continuing budget cuts could force the closure of the Skydome. Veteran defensive coordinator Corey Batoon went back to Arkansas State, from whence he came, and the program also lost its secondary coach, director of football operations and strength coach. Running back Deonte Williams, the Big Sky's newcomer of the year, left the program. And starting defensive end Kyle Rath suffered a partially-torn ACL which will sideline him for the first half of the upcoming season.
All of that "adversity," as coaches like to call it, was piled on to the lingering disappointment over the way the Lumberjack season ended last fall. After starting off the year 6-1 and climbing to No. 15 in the FCS polls, NAU crashed hard, losing four straight to end the season at 6-5 for the third straight year.
Run Defense Exposed
The Jacks wound up with the best rushing defense in the nation, setting a Big Sky Conference record by limiting opponents to less than 60 yards a game -- on an average of 2.1 yards per carry. But they were badly exposed over the final third of the season by the three best running backs in the Big Sky when Trevyn Smith (Weber State), Chase Reynolds (Montana) and Demetrius Crawford (Montana State) all rambled for over 100 yards apiece in wins over the Jacks. Eastern Washington's Matt Nichols then put up 346 yards and two TDS in passing the Eagles to a season-ending win over NAU.
Despite the bitter finish and the turmoil within the program, NAU rewarded Souers, the dean of Big Sky coaches, with a contract extension through 2010. Entering his 12th season at the Axer helm, Souers' program has been on a roller coaster since he arrived from Montana in 1998. The Jacks have posted seven winning seasons and tied for the league title once during that time, but they've also suffered through four losing campaigns. Most significantly, Souers, who was Montana's defensive coordinator when the Jacks tabbed him, is 0-11 against his former employer.
NAU's had few problems against Idaho State during that time, however, at least in Flagstaff. The Bengals haven't won at the Skydome since 1984, which ties Weber State for ISU's longest road losing streak. When the Bengals go to Flagstaff this year, it will be the seventh game of the season for NAU, which doesn't open its season until Sept. 12 at Arizona. The Axers then host Southern Utah, Montana and Northern Colorado, before playing at Montana State and Portland State.
Despite losing RB Williams, who ran for 194 yards and three touchdowns in the Axers' 52-30 win in Holt Arena last year, NAU still has the oft-injured Alex Henderson to provide firepower in the backfield. Henderson, who ran for over 1,000 yards as a freshman and Big Sky Newcomer of the Year, was limited to just six games last season, but still averaged over 5 yards a carry. He'll be joined in the backfield by quarterback Michael Herrick, who split time with the departed Lance Kriessen after transferring from Ole Miss last fall. Herrick completed almost two-thirds of his passes, but threw only three TDs vs. six interceptions. His top targets will likely be Conrad Meadows (4 catches for 141 yards and two TDS vs. ISU), and recuperating TE Shaun Fitzpatrick, who was limited to three games last year, but still caught 9 balls for a 16-yard average.
The "D" Is the Key
The real key for NAU, however, will be how the Axers' ultra-aggressive "flex" defense, which relies heavily on blitzing linebackers and safeties, adjusts to the loss of its leader Batoon, and two key playmakers: all-American defensive back K.J. Gerard and linebacker Cyrus Igono. The Axers do return end Michael Battisti, their sack leader with six, pre-season all Big Sky linebacker Cody Dowd, and five other starters who contributed to the league-leading 42 sacks registered by the Lumberjacks last season.
While NAU was able to take advantage of lesser offenses early in the season, the Axers' gambling tendencies left their secondary at risk. ISU quarterback Russell Hill, for example, ripped NAU for 361 yards and two touchdowns, while Eddie Thompson and Jaron Taylor combined for 16 catches between them. The Bengals were able to pick up only 33 net yards on the ground, however. Later in the season, when the best running backs in the league were able to gain yards against them, the NAU secondary was under even greater pressure.
Under normal circumstances, you wouldn't think this would be the year that an Idaho State team picked to finish last in the league would break the 25-year Flagstaff drought. But so many things have gone so wrong for the Axer program in the last 10 months, well crazier things have happened.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it'ain't always easy, but it's always fun.