Lumberjacks thinking upset after near-miss last week

By By Cody Brunner

By Cody Brunner

Many would look at a season-opening loss as a negative, but for the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, their first game showed they belong with the big boys. Last weekend, the Lumberjacks played No. 24 Arizona State even for three quarters before succumbing to the Devils’ wrath, 35-14.

Northern Arizona wide receiver Alex Watson kept his team alive, making 11 catches for 206 yards, but Arizona State proved too much for the Division 1-AA school, scoring 21 points in the final quarter to stymie an optimistic Northern Arizona team.

The Lumberjacks started off the game hot, with quarterback Jason Murrieta connecting with Watson on an 80-yard bomb on Northern Arizona’s first possession.

Arizona State bounced back with a touchdown of its own in the second quarter, driving down the field methodically and scoring on a 13-yard pass to knot the score at seven.

Murrieta countered with his second touchdown pass to Watson midway through the second period, this time converting for 60 yards.

The Sun Devils tied the score at 14-14 with a minute left in the half.

Murrieta started the fourth quarter sour, tossing his only interception of the game, which was returned for a touchdown.

Northern Arizona was unable to mount a comeback after the pick, allowing two more touchdowns before the game concluded.

The Lumberjacks will try to use their experience against a rugged Arizona State squad this week when they take on the Utes.

Northern Arizona head coach Jerome Souers heads into this season with a wide breadth of talent, returning 17 starters from last year’s team.

Leading the team at quarterback will be Murrieta, who completed 15 of 20 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns in his first start of the season. Last year, as a junior, Murrieta threw for more than 1,900 yards and 15 touchdowns, but struggled with his completion percentage. The senior should flourish this season under new offensive coordinator Keeth Matheny, who bases his scheme around high-percentage passes.

The running back is a serious concern for Souers this year, with only two returnees coming back from a sub-par rushing year. Redshirt junior Alex Henderson carried the ball 14 times for 44 yards last week and is expected to get the majority of the carries this week.

Watson is a marquee wide receiver whose speed will create a lot of problems for the Ute defense this week. The junior led the Lumberjacks last year with 50 catches for 566 yards and was named All-Big Sky honorable mention.

Northern Arizona’s offensive line will be another strong point in the offense, as four starters from last year’s club return this year. It will try to improve upon a measly 53 rushing yards against the Sun Devils.

On defense, the Lumberjacks field one of the most experienced units in Souers’ tenure, especially on the line. Blair Boynton recorded 38 tackles and 4.5 sacks last year to anchor the line. Drew Hoffman and Josh Williams will also make considerable contributions up front for the Lumberjacks.

The linebacker unit should once again be one of the stronger units on the team. Chris Hunsaker and D.J. Wade both return this season after combining for 123 tackles, with 18 for loss last season.

Junior cornerback K.J. Gerard had an impressive season last year for the Lumberjacks, leading the team in tackles (73) and the Big Sky Conference in interceptions (4). Joining Gerard in the secondary will be senior Kris Theus and Houston transfer Ricky Wilson.

Senior punter Rhian Madrid is also coming back to bolster the special teams unit. Madrid was elected All-Big Sky first team last season after averaging 43.0 yards/punt (fourth in the nation).

With Murrieta and Watson leading a potent passing attack, as well as 10 returning defensive starters, the Lumberjacks have all of the tools necessary to make a run at a Big Sky conference title.