YAKIMA, Wash. — Talk about turning a conference upside down.
Humboldt State, which Central Washington will oppose in GNAC play tonight in Arcata, Calif., was picked to unseat the defending champion Wildcats for its second title in three years in a preseason poll of conference coaches.
The biggest surprise of the season to date is not only have the Lumberjacks gone winless, they haven’t really come close. Humboldt has been outscored 161-59 through four games, with last week’s 49-24 home loss to previously 0-3 Dixie State perhaps the most damning of its defeats.
That said, the Redwood Bowl scoreboard will read 0-0 when Central and the Lumberjacks tee it up at 6 p.m., and CWU coach John Picha knows the best way to shorten the 12-hour bus ride home — not to mention enhance his own team’s chances at a fifth GNAC title in six years — is to keep Humboldt winless.
“The toughest part is the ride back,” Picha said of the journey that covers roughly 630 miles. “You’ve played a game, you’re tired and it’s late. You start back winding through all these trees the first three hours, and you’re just praying you hit I-5.
“Of course, winning makes it all more bearable.”
While Central’s young offense has struggled much like that of the Lumberjacks’, its veteran defense has been as good if not better than had been anticipated. A 7-3 win a week ago at Azusa Pacific, which had smothered Humboldt 28-2, left the Wildcats 2-1 in the GNAC and 2-2 overall.
Offensively, CWU will have starting quarterback Jake Nelson and guard Neil Fuhrmann available after both left last week’s game with injuries.
“Jake took a big hit,” Picha said, “and got the wind knocked out of him. We also kept him out because we weren’t sure that he hadn’t had a concussion, but he’s checked out fine this week.” Fuhrmann had a knee problem, Picha said, but it wasn’t considered serious.
Central’s hope, then, is to get more production from redshirt freshman Nelson and its offense in anticipation of another lights-out defensive performance.
And that would mean fewer carries for sophomore running back Jordan Todd — the offense’s best player to date — who last week rushed a career-high 37 times for 189 yards. For the season, the 5-foot-6, 186-pounder has carried 104 times for 468 yards.
“You don’t want to run the ball on every play,” Picha said. “On the other hand, you do what the situation calls for. Last week we had a lead on the road with an inexperienced quarterback, our defense was playing great and we managed to win the game.”
Humboldt, led by reigning GNAC offensive player of the year Nick Ricciardulli, has struggled with turnovers. The Jacks have thrown nine interceptions and lost four fumbles, with senior running back Ricciardulli hampered by a first-game knee injury.
“They’ve thrown some picks,” Picha said, “but they’re still a good football team. They fly around on defense and fly to the ball.
“They’re searching for something, but we just want to make sure they don’t find it Saturday night.