That one truly baffles me. These two programs both seem so comparable. They both play in outdated domed stadiums in towns that have a lot more on their minds than their local college football programs. Actually, ISU probably has more rabid fans when you consider how they turn out for games in those rare years when the Bengals are good. Flagstaff, while a beautiful resort town, is a good two hours from anywhere. Pocatello is not quite as scenic and is three hours from Salt Lake, but it's comparable.
NAU has no football tradition to speak of -- the Axers have won one outright Big Sky championship (1978) and tied for one title (2003). The Bengals have two outright titles -- 1981 and 1963, and one tri-title (2002). And Idaho State actually has a national championship to its credit (1981), although the Bengals earned that one long before today's players were born.
It is true that NAU is doing a nice job of upgrading the facilities they have: they've installed REAL @ Grass in their dome, for example, something Idaho State is going to have to emulate soon if the Bengals want to eliminate some of the turf injuries they're suffering and improve their recruiting. The Axers also did something that former ISU AD Babe Caccia and some of his cronies tried but couldn't do -- they lured the Arizona Cardinals to Flagstaff for pre-season camp. The result was the installation of these two beautiful outdoor practice fields (above) outside the Walkup Skydome.
But none of that explains why the Bengals have been unable to win in Flagstaff since Jim Koetter, Vern Harris, Merril Hoge and company triumphed there in 1984, 29-15. In fact, while there have been a couple of close games since then (the Bengals lost 50-38 in OT in 1996 and 35-32 in 1990), for the most part, the games have been blowouts, with the Axers' average margin of victory just under 20 points over the last five games.
Well, we may be left to continue to ponder that NAU winning streak -- along with ISU's ongoing 19-and-counting game road losing streak -- after Saturday afternoon's meeting of the two schools. The Axers, who were coming off a four-game losing streak to end last season and then suffered several key injuries and defections in the off-season, are the surprise of Big Sky play so far. They are 3-1 in the league and coming off back-to-back road wins at Montana State and Portland State. Their only loss came in overtime to No. 2-ranked Montana, 41-34, in the Skydome.
NAU quarterback Michael Herrick, who shared time at QB last year after transferring from Ole Miss, is playing as well as anybody in the league right now. He's completed 69 percent of his passes for 15 touchdowns and only three picks. Wide receivers Ed Berry and Conrad Meadows and RB Alex Henderson have combined with Herrick to make NAU the second-highest scoring team in the league at 32.5 ppg. The Axer defense, which was hardest hit by injury pre-season, hasn't been terrific but, led by defensive end Isaac Bond, who tops the league with six sacks, it's been good enough.
If nothing else, the Axers should give Idaho State fans hope -- year after year, they are usually competitive and, every five years or so, they're good enough to make the playoffs. They do it by continually recruiting good skills position athletes on offense, and picking up two or three playmakers on the defensive side of the football. It's amazing what impact four good players can have on your program: an efficient quarterback, two quality recievers and a running back that can make people miss. Throw in a couple of defenders who can rush the passer or create turnovers and, wa-la, you are competitive.
Because the Bengals don't have a lot of those components right now, however, they will have to scrape and claw to compete in Flagstaff on Saturday afternoon. And if they can overcome the 25-year-hex of the Lumberjacks, well, you can forget Appy State and Michigan, that would be the upset of the decade in college football.
Shots in the Dark
Montana had to rally at home and Montana State had to win in overtime, but those two squeekers allowed me to finish 3-1 last week. My only mistake was in picking Portland State to defend home field against NAU and, as we're learning during this whacky Big Sky Conference season, hardly anybody defends home field these days. On to this week's Shots in the Dark:
Montana State at Eastern Washington: How depressed are the folks in Cheney this week? They lost another winnable game in Washington-Griz after, get this, the league office acknowledged they got hosed by the officials. And they lost all-American wide receiver Aaron Boyce to a ruptured Achilles. Well, EWU hasn't allowed a little thing like NCAA sanctions to keep them down this year, so I'm going with them this week, even though MSU is healthier and probably favored. Don't let me down, Eags.
UC Davis at Portland State: Wow, has the Jerry Glanville magic rubbed off or what? The Vikings, behind a backup quarterback, were throttled last week by NAU at home, and I don't see anything positive coming down the line this week with a good Aggie team, either.
Weber State at Northern Colorado: The Bears play good defense, especially at home, but they won't be able to slow down Cameron Higgins and the Wildcats. Weber continues to steam toward next weekend's shootout in Missoula.
Montana at Sacramento State: Griz fans are starting to get a little edgy, what with Montana giving up an average of over 30 points a game over their last three contests. And the Hornets have some explosiveness on offensive -- but not nearly enough to get this done.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.