NAU football refuses to be defined by season-opening loss

Running back Xazavian Valladay and the rest of the Arizona State offense challenged Northern Arizona, but NAU coach Chris Ball said is team is already looking forward. (Photo by Rudy Aguado/Cronkite News)

FLAGSTAFF – Keeping this season in perspective is what Northern Arizona University’s football team is all about.

With one game down, 10 more to go and double the reasons for optimism as the Lumberjacks march on from a season-opening road loss to Arizona State a week ago, no one is hitting the panic button in Flagstaff.

“We have a good football team,” NAU coach Chris Ball said in his postgame press conference. “ I mean, this game really doesn’t make or break our season. Every goal we have on the board is still attainable. This hasn’t knocked us out of the Big Sky championship. This hasn’t knocked us out of the playoffs. And, you know, this is a game that we love to play.”

ASU knew not to overlook its FCS opponent after the Lumberjacks upset the Sun Devils’ in-state rival, Arizona, in 2021, and prepared accordingly. Entering the matchup, ASU coach Herm Edwards complimented the job Ball has done at NAU, as well as nearly every position of the Lumberjacks. “We anticipate a team that comes in here with a lot of energy,” he said at his weekly press conference before the game.

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However, the Lumberjacks could not find the magic of the upset victory from last season and came up short against the Sun Devils.

The game against Arizona State was an emotional one for NAU, as 68 players are from Arizona and 56 are from Maricopa County. That sentiment extended to Ball, who coached on ASU’s staff from 2012 to 2015, in his first game against the Sun Devils since he took over NAU’s head coaching position in December of 2018.

Before the game, Ball said “there were a lot of emotions going back to Sun Devil Stadium” for him and his team, but despite the outcome, he feels the Lumberjacks are still as focused as ever.

“It’s nice to get that behind us,” Ball said Monday. “You know, there’s not a lot of pressure or stress on that game. It’s actually fun for us and the kids. It’s an opportunity to play a Pac-12 school and for the in-state kids especially. So, there’s really no pressure on us, it was on ASU.”

NAU has a lot to look forward to for the remainder of the season, as starting quarterback RJ Martinez and running back Kevin Daniels returned for their sophomore seasons after Martinez won the 2021 Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year and both were among seven players named to 2022 Phil Steele Preseason All-Big Sky Conference Teams. In the new era of the transfer portal, NAU was fortunate enough to retain 15 starters, including Martinez and Daniels.

In the last game of 2021, Daniels posted 280 rushing yards and five touchdowns against Cal Poly to cap off a year where he had 1,146 yards and seven touchdowns. His single-season yardage ranked 10th in NAU history. However, the Sun Devils held the sophomore to only 12 yards on 11 carries in the opener.

Martinez, who had 1,713 passing yards and 14 touchdowns to two interceptions in 2021, only managed 92 passing yards and threw two picks against ASU.

“Being able to push the ball downfield was a little difficult for us this game, but we’re hoping to correct that next week and hopefully push it more down the field against Sam Houston,” Martinez said after playing the Sun Devils.

NAU coach Chris Ball said his team is still in pursuit of all of their season goals despite the loss to the Sun Devils, which they are ready to put behind them. (Photo courtesy of NAU Athletics)

Ball added in his Monday press conference that “every mistake we made is correctable,” and that even with the final score (40-3) the defense did a good job of not allowing big plays and stopping ASU in the red zone. The Sun Devils finished with four field goals.

Senior Anthony Sweeney – a starting cornerback and leader of NAU’s defense who missed all of last season with an injury – went down early with an injury against the Sun Devils, but Ball said that how his team overcame adversity was a testament to the maturity of his players.

“Everybody can make themselves better. But firstly, you have got to look in the mirror and take ownership and once you do that, then you can move forward,” Ball said. “So, we’re in a good place, we had a great practice this morning, and we’ll just continue to move forward. Every goal we have is still attainable.”

NAU’s next matchup is Saturday at Sam Houston, which fell 31-0 to No. 6 Texas A&M in its season opener. In last season’s opener, the Lumberjacks lost to the Bearkats, who are currently in the transition phase from the FCS to the FBS.

“They’re the winningest Division I football program in the state of Texas over the last 10 years, so they are very talented,” Ball said of Sam Houston. “It’ll be a good challenge for us, a good opportunity for us going on the road. They’ll probably be the second best team we play this year.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Brendan Mau expects to graduate in December 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business. Mau has interned as a sports reporter with Times Media Group.