Jayden de Laura played within the confines of the offense, executed the game plan and seldom if ever put the ball in harm’s way. De Laura’s 79.3% completion rate was the second best of his college career. He threw three touchdown passes without a pick, ending a streak of four straight games with at least one interception (and 10 in all during that span). He ran when the situation called for it, including a 28-yard burst. And he displayed his ingenuity on a flip pass to Michael Wiley for a third-down conversion. Why not an A? A handful of inaccurate passes and a relatively low degree of difficulty by play design (average depth of target of 4.4 yards, per Pro Football Focus).
Arizona had a season-high 244 rushing yards, and running backs accounted for 215 of those with an average per carry of 8.0 yards. All four of them showed the ability to break tackles and maximize opportunities; PFF credited the RB corps with 5.93 yards per rush after contact. Wiley had a typically well-rounded game with 17 carries for 83 yards and one reception for 15 yards. Jonah Coleman had only three touches but turned them into 71 yards, including a career-long 59-yard run. DJ Williams ran with purpose in gaining 45 yards on five attempts. And the aptly named Rayshon “Speedy” Luke again came oh-so-close to breaking a big one. He gained 31 yards on three touches.
Similar to the RB group, Arizona’s receivers did a lot of work after getting their hands on the ball. Almost three-fourths of their production (74.4%) came via yards after catch. Jacob Cowing excelled in that regard, with his YAC total (96 yards) actually exceeding his official yardage (89). Cowing, Tetairoa McMillan (6-89) and Montana Lemonious-Craig (2-30) each scored touchdowns. McMillan had an all-time great one-handed grab over the middle but also lost a fumble. Lemonious-Craig set the tone for the excellent perimeter blocking that created creases for his teammates. TE Tanner McLachlan put up numbers (4-62) between the numbers.
Although the offense average 8.5 yards per play and accumulated 544 total yards, the line had some issues. De Laura and backup Noah Fifita were sacked three times; two UA linemen (Jordan Morgan, Wendell Moe) were charged with holding fouls; and the coaching staff changed personnel on the right side in the first half, subbing in Leif Magnuson for Joseph Borjon. PFF tagged the OL unit with nine pressures in 38 dropbacks. Stability could come if freshman Raymond Pulido is able to return from injury next week. Morgan impressed with his ability to get downfield on bubble screens.
Led by the front, Arizona limited UTEP to 49 net rushing yards on 26 attempts, a paltry 1.9 yards per carry. Justin Flowe led the surge with a team-high 11 tackles, although he appeared to get lost in coverage on a 51-yard pass play to RB Torrance Burgess Jr. All three sacks came from the front, with Jacob Manu, Tyler Manoa and Taylor Upshaw providing one apiece. Johnny Nansen rotated heavily against the Miners’ run-oriented attack, with 15 linemen and linebackers playing at least eight defensive snaps. QB pressure from the front was sporadic but better than in recent seasons.
Arizona shuffled its personnel in the secondary for most of the game, but it didn’t matter who was in there – the unit was stingy when it counted. UTEP starting QB Gavin Hardison completed less than 50% of his passes (15 of 31). UTEP’s only passing TD (and only TD, period) came after the game was decided. Second-year cornerbacks Ephesians Prysock and Tacario Davis combined for three pass breakups and allowed only three catches in 10 targets, per PFF. Safety Gunner Maldonado had his best game of 2023, including a forced fumble and recovery. Treydan Stukes returned to the lineup and made an impact (five tackles). Dalton Johnson proved effective as a blitzer (two QB pressures, per PFF).
The only significant blemish here was a blocked field goal in the second quarter. Tyler Loop nailed a 38-yarder in the third quarter to remain perfect for his career inside 40 yards. He also drilled all six of his kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. Kyle Ostendorp dropped one of his two punts inside the 20-yard line but mishit a 32-yarder that went out of bounds at the 25. De Laura had a pooch punt that was downed at the 10. The Wildcats couldn’t get anything going in the return game, in part because of UTEP punter Joshua Sloan’s excellent hang time (4.46-second average).
Jedd Fisch devised an effective offensive game plan that stretched the Miners from sideline to sideline while keeping them honest with a heavier dose of runs than in Arizona’s first two games. Our only quibble: Fisch called for a throwback pass that didn’t work for the second straight game at a time when the offense was clicking. Nansen’s defense played a sound, disciplined game. The defense was in the right position most of the time and cut its missed tackles from 17 at Mississippi State to just seven, per PFF.