SAN DIEGO—It’s amazing what you can do with better players.
Arizona’s massive overhaul of the roster produced huge dividends in its collective debut, with the performance of transfers Jayden de Laura and Jacob Cowing particularly incredible in a 38-20 win over San Diego State on Saturday afternoon at brand-new Snapdragon Stadium.
De Laura threw for 299 yards on 22-of-35 passing with four touchdowns—the same number he had for Washington State against the UA last November—and an interception while Cowing caught eight passes for 153 yards and three scores, tying the school single-game record.
All told, newcomers combined to score 30 points and gain 358 of Arizona’s 461 yards.
“We’re very appreciative that those guys had faith and belief in us, and chose to come to the University of Arizona,” said coach Jedd Fisch, who doubled his win total with the Wildcats. “We’re just getting started. We’re building this. We really believe we can build something special.”
The UA won its season opener for the first time since 2017, snapping an 11-game road losing streak in the process, and after being the absolute worst team in the country in red zone offense a year ago it scored on all five possessions.
Four of those were for TDs, the first time the Wildcats have scored four red-zone TDs in a game since the second game of the 2019 season. Last season they had only 12 TDs in 39 trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
Arizona’s defense allowed 232 yards and had four tackles for a loss, a sack and two takeaways, which hadn’t happened since the fifth game of last season. It kept mobile SDSU quarterback Braxton Burmeister mostly in check, with the former UA commit (and ex-Oregon/Virginia Tech starter) throwing for 51 yards with a TD and an interception and running for 20 before leaving the game in the third quarter.
Up 24-10 at the half, which was its most first-half points since scoring 24 in a loss at Stanford in 2019, the Wildcats completed the football version of a 2-for-1 with another de Laura/Cowing connection. This one, aided by a 37-yard catch by Tetairoa McMillan on a massively underthrown ball as he was interfered with, saw de Laura float a ball downfield as Cowing ran behind his defender up the seam for a 25-yard TD to make it 31-10 with 12:40 left in the third.
SDSU opted to punt from inside Arizona territory on its first drive of the second half, which felt almost like a sign of surrender. But the punt was downed at the 3-yard line, and after losing two yards on three plays the Wildcats had to kick from their own end zone.
And it resulted in disaster. Offensive lineman Josh Donovan, one of punter Kyle Ostendorp’s personal protectors, got in the way of the kick and it deflected off his left arm. SDSU recovered it in the end zone for a TD to get within 31-17 with 7:46 left in the third.
ARIZONA PUNT BLOCKS…ARIZONA pic.twitter.com/3G2jBLHC9Y— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 3, 2022
A second straight 3-and-out for Arizona and a good punt return set SDSU up in plus-territory and it quickly got inside the 10 before the Wildcat defense stiffened and forced a 23-yard field goal to make it 31-20 with 3:36 left in the third.
But like in the first half when it had consecutive poor possessions, Arizona’s offense responded and did it mostly on the ground. Eight of its next 11 plays were runs, including a 10-yard score by DJ Williams on an option pitch on 3rd down to make it 38-20 with 13:02 left.
“That drive just showed that, if we want to run the ball we can run the ball,” de Laura said.
Williams led the UA with 88 yards on 14 carries as Arizona rushed for 162, nearly double what SDSU averaged a season ago in ranking third nationally against the run.
SDSU’s last attempt to get back into the game, with just under six minutes left, ended with Paris Shand stripping the ball and Kolbe Cage recovering the fumble in the red zone. The Aztecs managed 13 points on four red-zone trips.
Arizona scored on its first three possessions, all in the red zone, but the first trip felt very much like many in 2021. The Wildcats moved the ball methodically until it got inside the 10, then two incompletions and a short catch set up a 25-yard Tyler Loop field goal.
The UA finally hit paydirt on its next two drives, with de Laura finding Cowing for a 17-yard pass to make it 10-0 late in the first quarter and then hitting true McMillan over the middle for a 6-yard strike to make it 17-3 with 10:19 left in the first half.
It was the first career catch for McMillan, the highest-rated signee in school history, and he paid the price for it.
The two-score lead was the first on the road for Arizona since winning at Oregon State in September 2019. It felt like nothing could go wrong for the UA until reality set in late in the first half.
Dorian Singer fumbled on a short catch, giving SDSU a short field, and the Aztecs capitalized with an 11-yard TD catch by Tyrell Shavers to cut the margin to 17-10 with 4:49 left before halftime.
Three plays later, de Laura made a poor decision to throw and was picked off by SDSU’s Noah Tumblin at the UA 40. But after SDSU had a 25-yard TD run called back by a holding penalty, Arizona safety Jaxen Turner intercepted a throw that went through the Aztec receiver’s hands, swinging momentum back to the Wildcats.
That takeaway—Arizona’s first since Anthony Pandy’s pick-six at USC last October—set up Cowing’s second score on a 4-yard catch from de Laura to put it up 24-10 with 28 seconds to go in the first half.
“It definitely got our offense back,” Turner said of his first career interception. He credited linebacker Jerry Roberts, who had a team-high 12 tackles in his first game since breaking his leg last November, for helping get him in position for the pick.
Arizona heads back to Tucson for its home opener next Saturday night against Mississippi State. The Wildcats haven’t started 2-0 since 2015.