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What to watch for in Arizona’s home opener against NAU

arizona-wildcats-nau-lumberjacks-preview-home-opener-2019-sumlin-tate-hawaii Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats will try to avoid a second consecutive 0-2 start when they host in-state foe NAU on Saturday night. It will be the first of six games at Arizona Stadium this fall, three of which come in September.

Arizona is 14-1 all-time against the Lumberjacks, an FCS school from Flagstaff, having claimed the last 13 meetings including recent wins in 2017 (62-24), 2015 (77-13), 2013 (35-0) and 2011 (41-10). They’ll also host NAU in 2021, 2023, 2024, 2026 and 2027.

Here’s what to keep an eye out for on Saturday night;

What will be different?

Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin indicated during his weekly press conference on Monday that some schematic changes are likely on defense, particularly when it comes to being able to get pressure on the quarterback. That wasn’t something the Wildcats did much against Hawaii, despite all the hype during training camp about a revamped defensive line.

There could be quite a few personnel changes, too, at various positions. The combination of one game of film to study and an extra week of practice before the second game has provided Sumlin and his staff plenty of information to determine who are the players Arizona can rely on the most.

“If we don’t know what we’re going to get out of you consistently, then you’re going to hurt this football team,” Sumlin said.

Run or pass?

The Wildcats opened the 2019 season with three consecutive pass plays, none of which were completed. The third one should have been, but Khalil Tate’s throw to Drew Dixon smacked off his shoulder pad and into a Hawaii defender’s hands.

Hawaii loaded the box early on, making the pass part of Arizona’s RPO system the more viable option, Sumlin said. Over time the Wildcats ran more, though J.J. Taylor had only were his fewest in seven games, but for the game Arizona threw the ball 39 times compared to 32 runs (including sacks).

The only other time Arizona threw more than it ran last year was the blowout loss at Utah. At Houston, another blowout, the Wildcats were 50-50.

Arizona has led the Pac-12 in rushing for three consecutive seasons, so expect a much greater emphasis on the ground game in this one.

Tracking Arizona debuts

Of the 50 players Arizona used against Hawaii, 10 were making their first appearance with the Wildcats including a quartet of junior college transfers as well as Texas A&M transfer Robert Congel, who started at left guard.

Five true freshmen made their collegiate debut, with Christian Roland-Wallace earning the start at spur. Also appearing were running back Michael Wiley, linebacker Derrion Clark, cornerback Bobby Wolfe and offensive lineman Jordan Morgan.

With players allowed to appear in up to four games during the season without having to burn a redshirt, several other newcomers figure to get a shot against NAU depending on how the game goes. That includes receivers Boobie Curry and Jaden Mitchell, defensive back Jaxen Turner and maybe even quarterback Grant Gunnell.

Crowd counting

An 0-1 record plus an FCS opponent could equal an abysmal crowd at Arizona Stadium on Saturday night. Like, really bad.

Arizona averaged 45,435 fans last season, but that included crowds of 51,000-plus for the opener against BYU and the finale against ASU. Only 41,493 came out for the game against Southern Utah after the Wildcats began 0-2.

For those scoring at home, the smallest crowd for a Saturday game in the last decade came in 2009 when only 38,819 showed up to see the Wildcats beat Louisiana-Lafayette on Thanksgiving weekend in the final game of Nick Foles’ college career.