The Arizona Wildcats started their season off with a blowout victory Saturday, taking down the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks 62-24 at Arizona Stadium.
Arizona's ground game picked up where it left off from the 2016 Territorial Cup, as it tallied 506 rushing yards. Six different Wildcats recorded a rushing touchdown, and six Wildcats had 55 rushing yards or more.
Arizona’s defense struggled, surrendering 562 yards, but forced three turnovers, including two interceptions by Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles.
Brandon Dawkins started at quarterback for Arizona, but had trouble connecting with his receivers, finishing 7-13 for 89 yards and a touchdown. He did have two touchdowns and 92 yards on the ground, though.
NAU quarterback Case Cookus was 9-16 for 144 yards in the first quarter, but ended with a line of 21-38 for 306 yards and two interceptions.
Arizona had 592 total yards.
Khalil Tate entered at quarterback in the third quarter for Arizona, but only threw one pass (an incompletion) as the Wildcats’ nursed a significant lead. Tate had six carries for 62 yards, and was replaced by Rhett Rodriguez in the fourth quarter after an apparent injury.
Rodriguez scored a late rushing TD.
Arizona led 14-7 after the first quarter, but opened its lead to 34-14 at the half. Arizona’s lead ballooned to 48-14 by the end of the third quarter.
Shun Brown returned a punt for a touchdown for Arizona’s first score, a rare UA special teams TD.
Arizona also had three touchdowns called back because of penalties on the offensive line.
Here’s a more detailed look at the game along with some takeaways:
The Wildcats got off to a shaky start as the first play from scrimmage was a 45-yard bomb by Case Cookus to a wide open Elijah Marks down the near sideline.
However, NAU later botched the snap on a short field goal attempt, which rolled all the way into NAU territory where the Wildcats would take over.
Arizona couldn’t take advantage of the miscue, though, as it quickly went 3 and out. NAU took over and had a 3 and out of its own, and Shun Brown returned the ensuing punt for a 66-yard touchdown.
Can confirm Shun Brown is fast pic.twitter.com/izgJ0xKuIz— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) September 3, 2017
NAU had a quick response, as true freshman Cory Young ran for a 58-yard touchdown to make it 7-7.
It appeared Brandon Dawkins scrambled for a 45-yard touchdown on UA’s next drive, but it was called back because of a holding call on Layth Friekh and UA would have to punt.
A long run by Joe Logan put NAU into UA territory, but true freshman Kylan Wilborn strip-sacked Cookus and the Wildcats took over at their own 42.
Soon after, Nick Wilson scored from 46 yards out to put UA up 14-7.
Behind Cookus and Logan, the Lumberjacks marched deep into UA territory, but Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles picked off Cookus at the 1-yard line to end the drive.
Later in the quarter, Dawkins completed a 43-yard touchdown pass to Tony Ellison to make it 21-7. It was a short pass to Ellison who made a man miss for his first career touchdown.
Tony Ellison's first career TD catch puts Arizona up 21-7 early in the second quarter pic.twitter.com/guH5VwxfUZ— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) September 3, 2017
NAU countered with a 12-play, 75-yard drive capped off by Young’s second rushing touchdown to make it 21-14.
But speedy Arizona receiver — and former track and field star — Tyrell Johnson took a reverse for a 55-yard touchdown to increase UA’s lead to 28-14.
Former track and field star Tyrell Johnson takes a reverse for a 55-yard touchdown pic.twitter.com/r0dlQyB3Pl— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) September 3, 2017
Flannigan-Fowles then picked off Cookus for a second time and, also for the second time, Dawkins had a rushing touchdown called back because of holding.
No worries, though, because Dawkins would score later on a fake reverse from 10 yards out just before the end of the half.
Arizona headed to the locker room up 34-14 after Josh Pollack missed the extra point.
What do you do after scoring on a reverse? Use a fake reverse. Brandon Dawkins scores from 10 yards out. pic.twitter.com/kurVXkkWfb— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) September 3, 2017
NAU actually outgained Arizona 273-241 in the first half, as UA’s defense had trouble getting stops, but the Wildcats’ ability to force three turnovers loomed large.
13 of UA’s first half points were scored after a turnover. Also to UA’s defense’s credit, it only allowed 70 yards to NAU in the second quarter, showing an improvement from a subpar first quarter.
Arizona’s ground game was dangerous in the first half, with Wilson, Johnson, Dawkins, and J.J. Taylor combining for 167 yards on just 18 carries, but Dawkins was just 6-12 for 74 yards through the air. He struggled majorly with his accuracy down the field.
NAU was 4-10 on first downs, UA was 1-5.
On the third play of the half, Dawkins took a quarterback keeper for a 66-yard touchdown after shedding a couple tackles, extending UA’s lead to 41-14.
UA then forced a 3-and-out after forcing Cookus under pressure, and Arizona’s rushing attack continued to throttle NAU.
Zach Green had a 37-yard touchdown run after Nick Wilson ran for 24 yards to make it 48-14.
Cookus found Elijah Marks deep down the middle of the field for a 50-yard gain on NAU’s next drive, beating Sammy Morrison in coverage, to put the Lumberjacks in the red zone.
But Jace Whittaker and Tristan Cooper landed a big hit on Cookus on fourth down to keep NAU off the board. Cookus was scrambling for the corner of the end zone.
The Wildcats took over at the 1-yard line and Tate entered the game for Dawkins and ran for 40 yards on third down.
Tate then threw an accurate deep ball intended for Devaughn Cooper down the far sideline, but it was incomplete after good coverage (and probably PI).
After running for a first down, Tate threw a dart deep across the middle for a touchdown, but it was nullified (ineligible receiver down field). The drive stalled and Arizona punted from NAU’s 40 instead of trying a long field goal.
Tate and running back Branden Leon led the Wildcats down the field at the start of the third quarter, and Rhett Rodriguez entered the game as UA neared the goal line.
Leon scored easily from 10 yards out on Rodriguez’s first play, making it a 55-21 game (Logan had a 22-yard TD run on NAU’s previous drive). It was Leon’s first career touchdown, and a cool moment for him, since he earned a scholarship earlier in the week.
True freshman and former four-star recruit Nathan Tilford debuted in the fourth quarter and broke out for a 65-yard run. Rhett Rodriguez capped the drive with his first career touchdown, a one-yard plunge into the end zone.
— Dawkins didn’t do anything to inspire confidence in his throwing ability. Tate made a couple impressive throws, and Rodriguez is evidently the No. 3 quarterback
— True freshman Lucas Havrisik had a stellar game as a kickoff specialist. Pollack missing an extra point was not-so-stellar
— Flannigan-Fowles is the first Arizona player since Tra’Mayne Bondurant to have two interceptions in a game
— Arizona’s cornerback play was concerning, as Lorenzo Burns and Sammy Morrison weren’t exactly shutting down NAU’s receivers. The Wildcats’ defense as a whole will have a lot of work to do before next week’s game
— The announced attendance was 43,620, the smallest in a Rich Rodriguez era season-opener
Arizona will host the Houston Cougars next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. MST in a crucial non-conference game.
Houston’s season-opener vs. UTSA was cancelled due to Hurricane Harvey, so UA will be its first opponent of the season.
The game will be broadcast on the ESPN family of networks (the exact channel has yet to be determined).
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire