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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Lumberjack senior running back Alex Henderson scored three touchdowns and had 168 rushing yards, helping Northern Arizona survive 22 fourth-quarter points from the T-Birds and escape with a 42-39 victory Saturday in an offensive showdown.
After stopping NAU on a fourth-down, the T-Birds got the ball with five seconds remaining, but their attempt to recreate the "Music City Miracle" fell short.
The loss drops the T-Birds to 1-2 this season while the Lumberjacks' victory improves them to 1-1.
The T-Birds were down 42-24 with less than 10 minutes left in the game before scoring on 15-yard pass from senior quarterback Cade Cooper to sophomore running back Austin Minefee to cap off a 9-play, 81-yard drive which was helped by two NAU penalties. Cooper found junior wide receiver Fesi Sitake open in the end zone to complete the two-point conversion, making the score 42-32. Cooper completed 33 of 48 passes for 425 yards and four touchdowns, three of which went to Minefee, who caught five passes for 80 yards to go along with 89 yards rushing, falling just short of his third straight 100-yard rushing performance.
After a failed onside kick, the T-Birds forced NAU into its only three-and-out of the game then scored on a 40-yard screen pass from Cooper to Minefee to finish a 5-play, 87 yard drive and cut the deficit to three at 42-39. Cooper was perfect on the drive, completing all five of his passes.
The T-Birds had a chance to get the ball back with more time left and a better chance to tie or take the lead, but Henderson converted a 3rd-and-8 with a 12-yard run, allowing NAU to take all but five seconds off the clock.
The T-Birds had no answer for the Lumberjack rushing attack, giving up 248 yards on 40 attempts for a 6.2 yards-per-carry average. A 35-yard end around score by sophomore wide receiver Austin Shanks, a 57-yard scoring run by Henderson and a 30-yard score by freshman running back Giovannie Dixon accounted for almost half of those yards.
SUU offensive coordinator Steve Clark said in a post-game interview with Power 91 Radio's Art Challis that Henderson is a good back.
"He's fast and not easy to tackle," Clark said. "He made our first guy miss a lot."
The 'Jacks also picked up chunks of real estate through the air, averaging more than 20 yards per completion. Junior quarterback Michael Herrick completed 15 of 21 passes for 306 yards and a touchdown. More than a quarter of his yards came on NAU's first play from scrimmage, a 78-yard pass to senior wide receiver Conrad Meadows.
"[Herrick] was right on the money all game long," Clark said.
The T-Birds got off to a slow start for the third time in as many games this season. They would've started the game with consecutive three-and-outs, had it not been for a 14-yard run by senior punter Trevor Ward on a fake punt during the game's opening drive.
SUU's defense wasn't able to pick up the slack during the offense's early struggles, giving up touchdowns on the Lumberjacks' first four drives.
The T-Birds were down 14-0 with 1:26 left in the first quarter before Minefee caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from Cooper to cut the deficit in half at 14-7. NAU matched the T-Birds score with Shanks' end-around on the first play of the second quarter.
T-Bird freshman quarterback Ammon Olsen spelled Cooper on SUU's next drive and fumbled the ball back to NAU while trying to scramble for a first down on 3rd and 4, giving the 'Jacks the ball deep in T-Bird territory at the 29. Henderson scored seven plays later to give NAU a 28-7 lead.
The T-Birds battled back, scoring a touchdown on a 25-yard pass from Cooper to junior wide receiver Tysson Poots with 3:37 remaining before halftime. Poots, a first-team All Great West Conference and honorable-mention All-American in 2008, was playing for the first time this season after missing the T-Birds' first two games with a foot injury. He finished with six catches for 109 yards in limited action.
After a Henderson fumble with NAU marching toward another score, SUU got the ball back deep in their own territory and couldn't muster a long drive, going into halftime down 28-14.
Henderson atoned for his fumble on the first drive of the second half, making numerous T-Bird defenders miss on his 57-yard touchdown run to again put the T-Birds in a 21-point hole.
SUU got the ball down the field for a goal-to-go situation before stalling in the red zone, a problem they struggled with in the first two games, and settling for a 25-yard field goal from senior kicker Ryan Griffith.
The T-Birds would capitalize on their next opportunity at the goal line, punching it in on 2nd and goal from the one-yard line on a run by junior running back Major Gray, pulling the T-Birds within 11 points at 35-24 with 13:14 left in the game. NAU would put the game just out of reach for the T-Birds, going 77 yards in seven plays on the ensuing drive to go up 42-24, capping it off with Dixon's 30-yard run in a drive that also included a 27-yard screen pass and a 4th-and-inches conversion.
The T-Birds mounted a rally, scoring 15 points in the next 6:02 to pull within three points at 42-39 before falling one miracle short.
Statistically, the T-Birds and Lumberjacks were nearly deadlocked as SUU had 540 total yards and NAU had 554. The T-Birds had 431 passing yards and 109 rushing yards in 81 plays while the 'Jacks were more balanced and picked up bigger chunks with 306 passing yards and 248 rushing yards in 61 plays. Both teams completed half of their third-down attempts and the turnover battle was tied as each team lost a fumble and neither team had an interception.
Clark said keys for the T-Birds moving forward will be to keep rushing for more than 100 yards every game and trying to win the turnover battle.
Clark said some strong points for the T-Birds are that they went 4-for-4 in the red zone, including three touchdowns, they converted eight of 16 third-down attempts and they had the ball 8:20 longer than NAU.
The T-Birds will try to keep their offensive momentum and fix their defensive problems before their next game, which is against in-state FBS rival Utah State on Sept. 26 at 6 p.m. in Logan.