Wildcats look to cut down Jacks
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With five games down and five to go, Central Washington University football is at a crossroads. Sitting at a 3-2 overall record, 2-1 in the GNAC, the Wildcats’ next opponent is familiar enough and formidable enough to control the fate of the 2016 season, and to determine if the season is doomed to be like the last.
The Humboldt State Lumberjacks, 3-2 overall and 1-2 in GNAC play, are led by a pair of juniors on offense who have helped them lead the conference in points per game (41.6).
Junior quarterback Robert Webber is leading the GNAC in completion percentage (70 percent), passing yards (1,583), passing completions (133) and passing attempts (189). Junior running back Ja’Quan Gardner leads the GNAC in rushing yards (590), yards per rush (6.0) and rushing touchdowns (11). Gardner rushed for a school record of 2,266 yards and 25 touchdowns last season.
Gardner also finished second in voting for the Harlon Hill trophy, which is given to Division II’s most valuable player.
In Gardner’s record-setting season, the Lumberjacks went an unblemished 6-0 in GNAC play and 10-2 overall The team advanced to the second round of the Division II Football Championship before being beaten by eventual Division II champion Northwest Missouri State.
Junior defensive back Jackson Huerta said the entire defense is looking forward to facing the top offense in the GNAC.
“We’re always up for a big challenge,” Huerta said. “We consider ourselves one of the better defenses in the GNAC, so the only way to prove that is to go against the best. They have two great players in their quarterback and running back, but it’ll be a good test.
Head coach Ian Shoemaker, who is now in his third season at CWU, knows that stopping Gardner from gaining steam early in games is key to pulling out a road win.
“You obviously have to plan for where [Humboldt State’s] strengths are,” Shoemaker said. “[Humboldt State’s strength] is their two backs [Gardner and Webber]. They’re the focal points of their offensive system. We need to stop the run and control that first and foremost the best we can.”
After a rough start to the season on the defensive side, the Wildcats are putting it together. They gave up 30 points per game and 394 offensive yards per game over the first three games of the season, but CWU has locked down in the past two weeks, only allowing 12 points per game and 300 offensive yards.
While CWU’s last two opponents hold a combined 2-8 record, Huerta believes that the recent success on the defensive side of the ball is about more than the talent level they face.
“We’re defining ourselves in the last couple of weeks defensively, so we’re excited to show that off again this week,” Huerta said. “This is going to be a tougher opponent and we want to prove that the last two weeks weren’t because of the opponent. We want to show that we’re the real deal this year.”
For some of the upperclassmen, however, a game against Humboldt State isn’t just about proving their worth on the defensive side of the ball. CWU is 3-5 against Humboldt State since 2011, and senior linebacker Blake Williams-Miller wants to see another victory against one of the perennial contenders of the GNAC.
“We haven’t beaten Humboldt in a while,” Williams-Miller said. “So we definitely want to go out there and change that streak.”
The fact that Humboldt State has the best offense in the conference (averaging 41.6 points per game and 503 yards per game) doesn’t seem to concern Williams-Miller more than any other opponent does.
“We don’t pay attention to who’s leading what. We know that every game we have to go out and win,” Williams-Miller said. “We don’t care if we’re facing the top offense in the GNAC or the bottom offense, we’re going to go out and win every down and every game.”