Can NAU beat ASU? A history of recent FCS upsets of Pac-12 teams

Sep 2, 2016, 11:00 AM
Northern Arizona tight end Dejzon Walker makes the catch for a first down against Arizona State dur...
Northern Arizona tight end Dejzon Walker makes the catch for a first down against Arizona State during the first half of a football game on Thursday, Aug. 30 2012, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Arizona State head coach Todd Graham has said many times over the course of his tenure in Tempe that he feels Sun Devil fans want to see big games in the non-conference schedule.

ASU kicked off the 2015 campaign in a high-profile matchup against Texas A&M in Houston. The Aggies won 38-17 and the loss, many feel, set the tone for a disappointing 6-7 campaign for the Sun Devils.

This year, the season opener has a much different feel. ASU hosts Northern Arizona in Tempe Saturday night. The game is not smack dab in the middle of the afternoon and highlighted on national television like last year’s. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:45 p.m. Phoenix time and will be shown on Pac-12 Network, which is still unavailable to DirecTV customers nationwide.

And NAU is an Football Championship Subdivision member — that’s basically a more confusing way to say they’re not among college football’s big boys. But they are pretty good.

The Lumberjacks, coached by Jerome Souers, are coming off a 7-5 season. They were picked by Big Sky media to win the conference and are ranked 18th in the FCS preseason Coaches’ Poll.

The ‘Jacks are led by sophomore quarterback Case Cookus, who threw 37 touchdown passes and only five interceptions in 2015. Also returning for NAU is wideout Emmanuel Butler, who had 1,208 yards and 15 touchdown catches.

By the way, Arizona State’s pass defense was the worst in FBS a year ago, yielding 337.8 yards per game and a total of 35 touchdown passes.

Saturday’s game is a classic case of one team’s strength vs. another team’s weakness.

But can NAU actually pull the upset of their in-state “big brother?” History says they have a chance.

Since 2002, Pac-12 teams have lost five times to FCS opponents. None of those have been suffered by ASU, who is 11-0 against lower division foes (including 4-0 against NAU) in that span. Others in the conference have fallen victim.

In 2005, Stanford, who rarely schedules games against FCS teams, lost to UC Davis, 20-17, on a last-second touchdown pass by Aggies quarterback Jon Grant.

Six years later, Sacramento State stunned Oregon State in the season opener in Corvallis as Jeff Fleming hooked up with receiver Brandyn Reed on a 6-yard touchdown pass and a two-point conversion to win 29-28 in overtime.

The next season, Colorado dropped a 30-28 decision to the same Sacramento State Hornets, who got a last-second field goal from walk-on kicker Edgar Castaneda.

The FCS upset streak reached three years in a row in 2013, when Vernon Adams led Eastern Washington to a 49-46 win over Oregon State on opening day. Adams, who would finish his career in the Pac-12 with Oregon in 2015, threw for 411 yards and four touchdowns while adding 107 yards and two rushing touchdowns in the win.

The most recent FCS-on-Pac-12 crime happened last year when Washington State was stunned by Portland State in Week 1, losing 24-17.

In case you’re wondering, Pac-12 teams have won 67 such matchups in the last 14 seasons, by an average score of 47-12.

So, in terms of NAU’s chances — they’re better than Lloyd Christmas’ chances to go out with Mary Swanson, but they’re still not great.

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Can NAU beat ASU? A history of recent FCS upsets of Pac-12 teams