For the most part, Jayden de Laura played efficiently. He completed a high percentage of his passes (18 of 24, 75%). He took checkdowns, more often than not, when no one was open downfield (nine completions to running backs). He also showed off his speed by racing around right end and down the sideline for a career-long 53-yard touchdown. But there were moments of impatience too. De Laura forced a ball over the middle that was nearly intercepted. And he fumbled when trying to run through a defender – aka, trying to do too much. All in all, the good far outweighed the bad.
Arizona used four running backs, and they all averaged at least 5.2 yards per carry. Michael Wiley was the Wildcats’ leading rusher (10-52) and receiver (6-57). Jonah Coleman averaged an obscene 14.7 yards per touch (three carries, three receptions) and showed great balance and determination on a 7-yard TD catch from de Laura. DJ Williams (6-38) forced five missed tackles in six rushing attempts, per Pro Football Focus. And Rayshon Luke (4-22) looked, well, speedy. It’s only a matter of time before he breaks one.
No receiver had more than three receptions, although the group accounted for two touchdowns. Tetairoa McMillan put up a 3-65-1 line, but it wasn’t his best night. He couldn’t come down with what looked like a catchable pass on fourth down in the first quarter, and he veered off path on de Laura’s fourth-quarter interception – a play where the two weren’t on the same wavelength. Jacob Cowing (3-38-1) also was tagged with a drop by PFF, although Jedd Fisch said the umpire was in Cowing’s sightline. Newcomer Montana Lemonious-Craig caught both of his targets, including a 39-yarder. Keyan Burnett had Arizona’s lone reception by a tight end. Tanner McLachlan wasn’t targeted. That won’t happen often.
The line helped the running backs average 6.1 yards per rushing attempt and surrendered only one sack despite some unexpected challenges. The biggest one was the absence of freshman right guard Raymond Pulido, a starter at that spot for almost the entire summer. Pulido got into a bike accident Thursday, Fisch said, and was held out. Veteran Sam Langi subbed in and played well, especially in pass protection (team-high 90.2 PFF pass-block grade). Left tackle Jordan Morgan looked a bit rusty; PFF charged him with a team-high two pressures allowed. As Arizona pulled away, some younger linemen (Joseph Borjon, JT Hand, Grayson Stovall) were able to get some valuable game experience.
Arizona beefed up its front in the offseason, and the changes paid off big time in the opener. NAU had just 78 net rushing yards (1.9 ypc), and front-six players combined for five of the Wildcat’s eight tackles for loss. Jacob Manu, Orin Patu, Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei, Bill Norton and Kamuela Ka’aihue were credited with full or shared tackles on Arizona’s three fourth-and-short stops in the second half. DE Taylor Upshaw had 1.5 TFLs but also was flagged for roughing the passer twice in the same series. The defense officially had only one sack, shared by Manu and Upshaw, but PFF credited the Wildcats with 15 pressures. DE Isaiah Ward had a team-high five.
Nickel back Treydan Stukes was on his way to a career game with five tackles, including two TFLs, in the first half before having to sit out the second because of injury. Martell Irby replaced Stukes and was extremely active, recording seven stops (one TFL) and two pass breakups. The secondary didn’t allow a pass play longer than 31 yards, which was a point of emphasis, and limited the Lumberjacks to 6.4 yards per attempt. Safety Gunner Maldonado played out of control at times and was ejected for targeting; he likely will have to sit out the first half at Mississippi State as a result.
The special-teams unit made the most impactful play of the game – Uiagalelei’s third-quarter blocked field goal, which Tacario Davis returned 85 yards for a touchdown. Instead of 14-6, Arizona’s lead swelled to 21-3. Kyle Ostendorp punted only once, and Tyler Loop’s lone field goal attempt (which he made) was pressure free (the score was 35-3 at the time). Six of his seven kickoffs went for touchbacks. The only negative was Dalton Johnson getting flagged for roughing the punter. That led to NAU’s only score and kept the UA offense off the field for an extended stretch.
You got the feeling that Arizona didn’t display its entire arsenal on either side of the ball in a game the coaching staff knew it would win handily. Both sides were relatively conservative; for example, the defense blitzed only five times, per PFF. The penalties – 11 in all, including five personal fouls – were a sore spot. Fisch harped on that at the end of training camp, but some part of that message got lost in translation. You couldn’t ask for a much better start from Johnny Nansen’s defense. And kudos to Jordan Paopao for finding the right combination of players on the field goal block unit.