In a game that was essentially a defensive stand-off for three and a half quarters, both the UNC and Northern Arizona offenses awoke in the final eight minutes of the game Saturday at Nottingham Field.
The Lumberjacks had the ball last, though, and they made the most of it, kicking the game-winning field goal with 15 seconds left to secure a 12-10 win.
"As a coach building a program, you have to try to take the positives away from it, but it hurts," University of Northern Colorado (2-6, 1-4 Big Sky) head coach Earnest Collins Jr. said. "It hurts a lot when you know you got a team on the ropes, and you basically just gave it to them."
After both offenses struggled mightily in the first three quarters, UNC broke that spell with a 10-play, 91-yard drive midway through the fourth, capped with a 15-yard strike from junior quarterback Seth Lobato to senior wide receiver Dominic Gunn to give the Bears a 10-9 lead. UNC's only points until then came on a 20-yard field goal from junior kicker Dave Eden in the second quarter
UNC left 4:52 remaining on the clock, though, which was just enough time for the Lumberjacks to maneuver 76 yards and set up an 18-yard field goal with 15 seconds left, the team's first offensive points of the game.
On that drive, NAU faced a 4th-and-2 from UNC's 28 with 1:39 remaining, and instead of attempting a field goal then, NAU handed off to its stud running back, junior Zach Bauman, the second-leading rushing in the conference. Bauman was limited to 92 yards rushing - short of his 122 per-game average - and he was held out of the end zone, but he did enough damage on a two-yard carry that got NAU another first down, allowing it to further milk the clock before its field goal.
UNC's final play fell apart on a fumbled lateral as time expired, giving NAU (7-1, 5-0) the victory.
Northern Arizona came into the game ranked No. 13 at the Football Championship Subdivision level but couldn't manage any offensive points until the final quarter. The Lumberjacks' nine points up until then came via a first-quarter safety of senior punter Mason Puckett and a Lobato interception returned for a touchdown in the second quarter.
"We gave them everything they had - they only scored three points on offense," Lobato said. "That pick-six that they had and the safety was things [sic] that we gave them, and if we can eliminate those things, we're going out of here happy."
Lobato went 20-of-36 through the air Saturday,passing for 198 yards - 105 of them going to junior wide receiver Jace Davis, who had seven receptions.
Davis said he was always confident in the offense's ability to score, saying Lobato is a great leader, but it was penalties Saturday - the Bears were whistled for seven of them for 75 yards - that really cost UNC.
"I feel like me and Seth are developing a really good relationship on the field and off the field, and it's going to turn positive for us," Davis said. "It wasn't prevention from (NAU). It was what we were doing - we were making mistakes. We could have run whatever we wanted on them. We just got to execute and stay away from penalties."
No penalty stood out more than an illegal block that negated a 62-yard touchdown from junior running back Tromaine Dennis on a screen pass on
the first drive of the third quarter.
Despite the penalties and the loss, UNC senior safety Jordan Bible - who recorded the Bears' interception - said the defense's performance was one that it can build on.
"I think for the whole 60 minutes, this was the best we've been able to play as a defense," said Bible, who also had eight tackles. "Our defensive line really played a great game. You need your defensive line to control the line of scrimmage when you're playing a good running game, and they came out - them and the linebackers - tackled the guy, made it hard for him all day, and that helped everybody. We just came together."
Collins said he was proud of his defense's effort, but the team as a whole still has a lot of learning to do in order to be successful on a consistent basis.
UNC's next test comes at 2:05 p.m. Saturday in Portland, Ore., against Portland State (3-5, 2-3 Big Sky).
Big Sky Conference Standings (Oct. 29):
| CHOOL || CONF || PCT || OVERALL || HOME || AWAY || STREAK |
| Northern Arizona || 5-0 || 1.000 || 7-1 || 3-0 || 4-1 || W7 |
| Cal Poly || 5-1 || 0.833 || 7-1 || 4-0 || 3-1 || L1 |
| Eastern Washington || 5-1 || 0.833 || 6-2 || 3-0 || 3-2 || L1 |
| Montana State || 4-1 || 0.800 || 7-1 || 4-1 || 3-0 || W1 |
| Sacramento State || 4-2 || 0.667 || 6-3 || 3-1 || 3-2 || W1 |
| Southern Utah || 3-3 || 0.500 || 4-5 || 2-3 || 2-2 || W1 |
| Portland State || 2-3 || 0.400 || 3-5 || 2-1 || 1-4 || W1 |
| Montana || 2-4 || 0.333 || 4-5 || 3-2 || 1-3 || W1 |
| North Dakota || 2-4 || 0.333 || 4-5 || 3-2 || 1-3 || L1 |
| UC Davis || 2-4 || 0.333 || 3-6 || 2-2 || 1-4 || L2 |
| Northern Colorado || 1-4 || 0.200 || 2-6 || 2-2 || 0-4 || L1 |
| Weber State || 1-4 || 0.200 || 1-7 || 0-3 || 1-4 || W1 |
| Idaho State || 0-5 || 0.000 || 1-7 || 1-2 || 0-5 || L6 |