By Charles Renning
PHOTO COURTESY NAU ATHLETICS MEDIA RELATIONS
Northern Arizona sophomore quarterback Jason Murrietta finished second among NCAA Division I freshmen season with a 147.2 passer efficiency rating last season. Murrietta through for close to 3,500 yards and 29 touchdowns as just a freshman last season.
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday, September 3, 2004
For most of its existence, the Northern Arizona football program has been the little brother of the state's college football scene. The Lumberjacks were often overlooked and never given the same amount of attention as Arizona and Arizona State.
In 2003, NAU finally grew up.
Reaching the NCAA Division I-AA quarterfinals for the first time in school history last season, the Lumberjacks made a case for themselves as arguably the best college team in the state.
The Flagstaff school lost its second game of the season to 20th-ranked ASU, 34-14, but the game was closer than the score indicated.
NAU took a 7-6 lead into the second quarter and was one play away from jumping ahead 14-6 when Sun Devil cornerback R.J. Oliver intercepted a pass on his own goal line and raced it 100 yards for the go ahead score.
ASU went on to score 21 unanswered points, but there was never a time when the Lumberjacks were out of it.
The team used the Tempe experience as a building block for its 2003 campaign.
NAU finished the year 9-4, took a share of the Big Sky Championship for the first time since 1978 and ended the year in the nation's top eight teams.
Arizona head coach Mike Stoops expects the in-state opponent to use last season's game against ASU as a useful tool for this weekend's matchup.
"They are going to come in and play with great emotion," the first-year head coach said, "They won't be in awe of us or playing here, so we have to be prepared."
The Wildcats should also be prepared to face one of the better D I-AA players in the nation.
Sophomore NAU quarterback Jason Murrietta is one of only three offensive starters returning for the Lumberjacks, but as Stoops put it, probably the most important.
"Only having three starters back will be a challenge, but of anyone you want back who can carry your team, it is the quarterback," he said.
Murrietta finished 2003 as the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year and seventh for the Walter Payton Award, which is the equivalent of Division I-A's Heisman Trophy.
"Jason Murrietta is as good a quarterback as you'll see," Stoops said. "He has a quality arm, he can make all the throws you want."
The Phoenix native set numerous records on his way to All-Big Sky honors. He set the D I-AA and school record for touchdown passes (29) by a freshman and set Lumberjack records for passing yards (3,472) and total offense (3,460).
NAU head coach Jerome Souers wasn't as quick to point out the successes of his young signal-caller, but still noted Murrietta's role this season.
"We had a pretty good group of offensive players, a senior-dominated unit," he said. "Now that those guys are gone, it's more on Jason's shoulders to understand the defense and making better decisions."
The Lumberjacks lost their top four pass catchers from a year ago, including sixth-round NFL Draft pick Clarence Moore, and return just one starting lineman.
The team reloaded with a mixture of junior college transfers and freshmen and been tabbed as high as No. 3 in Division I-AA in one preseason media poll.
"NAU poses a good challenge," Stoops said. " They are a very quality Division I-AA football team."