FLAGSTAFF, AZ — It was 43 degrees outside with snow on the ground, not exactly your typical look and feel on the opening day of the college football season. But for NAU that was the case, as the Lumberjacks kicked off the unique spring campaign Saturday in Flagstaff.
The long-awaited start to their six-game Big Sky spring season came against Southern Utah, more than 460 days since the Lumberjacks' last game. Though there were no fans in the stands, you could feel the energy from both teams, anxious to finally play against someone other than themselves.
“To start the day, it was really, really emotional. The stuff we went through to get to this point,” said NAU head coach Chris Ball. “When you start thinking about all the people that worked to make this happen, and I mean, work. I'm talking work. Long hours, late nights, to put our players in this position to play a game and have some normalcy, is amazing. It's absolutely amazing.”
Hand sanitizer, PAC-MAN in the stands and t-shirt tosses to nobody was the vibe at Walkup Skydome for the first time NAU has opened a season at home against a conference opponent in more than 80 years.
It took almost the entire first half for the Lumberjacks offense to shake off some rust, but they were kept in the game by a 58-yard pick-six courtesy of Kamdan Hightower, a freshman out of Scottsdale Chaparral.
“He's a really, really smart football player,” Ball said of Hightower. “I was talking to him before the game because I thought he’d be a little bit nervous, but he said coach, ‘I’m not nervous. I've been waiting for this my whole life.'”
A late touchdown to end the half and then a 55-yard pass and catch three plays into the 2nd half gave NAU its first lead of the season, and from there it was a back-and-forth affair that came down to the final play.
With two seconds remaining and trailing 33-28, Keondre Wudtee took the snap from the two-yard line and found Coleman Owen in the end zone for the game-winning score, setting off bedlam in the Skydome. NAU won 34-33 to capture the Grand Canyon Rivalry Trophy in dramatic fashion.
“I had all the faith in Keondre that he would put it where it needed to be, and he did,” said Owen, a redshirt freshman from Gilbert Higley. “It was real emotional after the game, it was awesome.”
How this FCS spring season will work — conferences will play anywhere from four to eight games. In the Big Sky’s case, six games with two open weekends for make-up dates. At the end of it all, 16 teams will go to the playoffs as opposed to the normal 24.
Next week, the Lumberjacks travel to Eastern Washington.