FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Northern Arizona (9-3) football team hit the field today for their first Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Playoff game since 2003. The Lumberjacks were able to strike first against visiting South Dakota State (8-4), but the Jackrabbits battled back and came away with the 26-7 win tonight in the Walkup Skydome.
For the Lumberjacks, today's game ended a 10-year drought for NAU in the playoffs. Two hours before kickoff, the NAU Athletics Department announced that head coach Jerome Souers would not be coaching today after suffering from complications that arose from a recent back surgery.
Under the helm of interim head coach and defensive coordinator Andy Thompson, the Lumberjacks took the field in honor of their head coach.
"Not having your head coach is tough, but I think the kids prepared well and worked hard," said Thompson. "We didn't execute well and I think that was the big difference. They were able to execute and score and we didn't do a great job stopping them. We weren't able to score on offense, so it came down to execution."
After a scoreless first quarter, senior All-American running back Zach Bauman rushed six yards into the end zone to give the Lumberjacks the lead. The touchdown also gave Bauman the title of "All-Time NAU Points Scorer" with 310 career points scored.
South Dakota State was able to tie the game when Zach Zenner zipped by a NAU defender and ran 87 yards to the house.
By the end of the first half, both Zachs had reached the 100 yards rushing plateau, as they did not disappoint the crowd.
Enter the second half of the game, and NAU found itself pinned down on its own one-yard line after a false start was called on the first play of the drive. The Lumberjacks were unable to scramble out of the end zone, leading to a safety and a 9-7 lead for the Jackrabbits.
Less than one minute later, Zenner broke loose again, this time for a 34-yard touchdown.
South Dakota State was able to tack on a 20-yard field goal (Justin Syrovatka) and seven-yard touchdown (Reggie Gandy) in the fourth quarter to come away with the victory and advance to the second round of the playoffs.
"I hate losing more than I love winning, but it's my senior season and I finally made it to a playoff game, so that's a plus," said Bauman. "I would have liked to go out with a couple more wins."
The Lumberjacks finished the season with a 9-3 overall record for the second straight season. Twenty-two seniors highlighted the NAU roster, as they will be missed next season. The Lumberjacks close out their season with an FCS-best eight defensive touchdowns.
"I just want to say we had a great senior class," said Thompson. "I'm so proud of Zach. He had a tremendous career and he's a great competitor. He gave it everything and even at the end he was fighting for extra yards. He's a tremendous, tremendous competitor, along with all the other seniors."