It must feel like Groundhog Day to Jerome Souers. Every year, the story repeats itself.
In each of his 14 seasons as coach at Northern Arizona, Souers has prepared his team to play Big Sky Conference rival Montana. And each time they’ve come away empty.
It’s been a bitter pill to swallow for Souers, who helped take UM to prominence as its defensive coordinator in the late 1980s and ’90s. But for whatever reason, he can’t get over the hump against his former school.
Souers and the Lumberjacks (2-1) will try to snap their run of frustration again Saturday when they invade Washington-Grizzly Stadium to play No. 14 Montana (2-1). It’s the Big Sky Conference opener for both squads.
“This game is between the players,” Souers said Wednesday during the Big Sky Conference’s weekly coaches teleconference. “Every year we have a different team, and every year we have a different outlook.
“It’s been close the last three times we’ve played. And nothing would make me happier than to see my players enjoy success in that setting, because it’s been so difficult to be so close and come away empty handed.”
The last three meetings between Montana and NAU went down to the wire. Souers remembers well.
Last season on NAU’s turf, the Lumberjacks led 14-0 after the first quarter before the Griz game back to win 28-24 on Jordan Canada’s 46-yard touchdown run with less than five minutes remaining. Two years ago in Missoula, it was C.J. Atkins’ miracle touchdown catch on a fourth-down play with five seconds left that propelled the Grizzlies to a 24-21 triumph.
And in 2009, Griz quarterback Andrew Selle hit Tyler Palmer with a 25-yard TD pass in overtime to preserve a 41-34 victory in what was a wild, back-and-forth affair.
We reported Tuesday that Souers had lost 13 straight games to the Griz. Not so. It’s actually 14.
And if Souers is to avoid the 0-15 scar, his team must overcome the most daunting road disadvantage in FCS football. Since 2006, the Grizzlies are 23-1 in conference home games.
“I think that’s the problem. You really can’t emulate” the atmosphere at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, Souers said.
“Like a lot of people, we have crowd noise devices we use to force the players to concentrate and be a little more in tune with how to communicate in those environments. But you really can’t emulate it until you get there. And I think that’s the toughest part of playing there.”
Like every team that visits Missoula, the Lumberjacks will especially aim to protect the football and turn red-zone opportunities into touchdowns rather than field goals. But that’s much easier said than done.
Led by running back Zach Bauman and quarterback Chance Cartwright — who has played in place of injured starter Cary Grossart — NAU’s offense is averaging right around 30 points and 360 yards per game.
Bauman is one of the top backs in the Big Sky Conference, and will probably play a big role if NAU pulls the upset Saturday.
Bauman led the league last season with 1,435 rushing yards and 15 TDs. He rushed for a combined 275 yards and two touchdowns in his previous two games versus the Grizzlies.
“They’ve got the best running back supposedly in the conference,” UM coach Mick Delaney said of Bauman. “Or at least (he) was a year ago, and he hasn’t shown that that’s going to change any right now.
“Our defense is going to have their hands full. They’ve got to contain him. You’ve got to stop him before he gets going. We’re not going to shut him down, but we’ve got to keep him contained and not give up the great big plays.”