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What we learned from Arizona’s season-opening win at San Diego State

arizona-wildcats-sdsu-aztecs-observations-notes-defense-playmakers-turnovers-2022 Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

SAN DIEGO—“One hell of an opening day, huh?”

That’s how quarterback Jayden de Laura greeted the media after guiding Arizona to an impressive 38-20 win at San Diego State on Saturday afternoon, matching the Wildcats’ win total from a year ago.

The transfer from Washington State improved to 6-0 in his career when throwing for three or more touchdowns in a game, tossing four to match the most by a UA passer in their debut since Anu Solomon had four in the 2014 opener against UNLV.

“It’s like every other game,” de Laura said when asked about his performance, which saw him throw for 299 yards on 22-of-35 passing. “It was good to get a win with these guys, all the work we put in in the offseason.”

While what Arizona did to SDSU didn’t seem like a surprise to de Laura, it’s hard for those who had been around the program the previous few years to say that.

The Wildcats won their season opener for the first time since 2017, snapped an 11-game road losing streak and had its most points in a road game since the 45-38 loss at Hawaii to open the 2019 season. In doing so, they showed they’re much improved from the 1-11 squad of a year ago.

Here’s what else we learned about Arizona from this impressive opener:

Playmakers aplenty

Outside of an ill-advised interception late in the second quarter that could have turned the game in the wrong direction, de Laura was nearly flawless. His 166.6 passer rating was the fourth-best of his career and was better than every QB performance for the UA since Khalil Tate had a 177.6 rating against Colorado in October 2019.

“What else could you ask for?,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said. “Statistically that’s a pretty good day. I thought he played a fantastic game of football.”

It didn’t hurt that de Laura was surrounded by arguably Arizona’s best collection of skill players in a decade, if not longer.

UTEP transfer Jacob Cowing had eight catches for 152 yards and three TDs, tying the single-game school record. The last UA wideout with three scoring receptions was Cayleb Jones in the infamous Hill Mary game against Cal in 2014, Cowing’s yardage output was the most since Jones had 182 yards against Nevada in the 2015 New Mexico Bowl.

“It was the play calling that got me in the right position at the right time,” said Cowing, who was targeted 10 times.

Dorian Singer had six catches, a career high, while freshman Tetairoa McMillan only had three receptions but two were big ones. He caught a 6-yard TD strike, withstanding a shot over the middle in the process, and also came back to an underthrown ball (while getting interfered with) and hauled it in just above the grass for a 37-yard gain.

“I know him, he can make plays,” de Laura said of McMillan. “I just have to put it up around his area.”

An efficient, if not explosive run game

Arizona ran for 162 yards on 39 carries, and take out a 6-yard sack against de Laura the Wildcats averaged about 4.4 yards per rush. Last season they averaged 3.6 per carry, including sacks, so there was some improvement.

Four runs qualified as “big plays,” those going for 10 or more, and three of those were by Florida State transfer DJ Williams, who led the team with 88 yards on 14 carries. Michael Wiley had the other, a 14-yard gain, but only ran for 31 yards on six carries while freshman Jonah Coleman had 40 yards on 13 carries.

But that 162 tally was nearly twice what SDSU averaged a year ago, when it ranked third nationally in run defense. The Aztecs returned seven starters from that unit but couldn’t keep Arizona behind the sticks, managing just four tackles for loss.

“We want to be a very good running team,” Fisch said. “We know that’s going to help us in every facet of the game. We felt like we could call the runs we wanted to call, and execute them.”

Nowhere was this more evident than in the game-sealing drive ahead of Arizona’s final score. When Williams ran it in from 10 yards out on third down, off an option pitch, it was the eighth run play in 11 snaps.

Red zone riches

All that practice time that Arizona devoted to the red zone in the spring and summer paid big dividends, at least for this game.

The Wildcats scored on all five trips inside SDSU’s 20, scoring four TDs after settling for a field goal on the first drive. They hadn’t had five red zone scores in a game since November 2019 and hadn’t had four TDs since September 2019.

Last year Arizona only managed 12 TDs in 39 red zone trips, the worst TD rate by any FBS team in more than a decade.

“The whole training camp I think we did a pretty good job at it, and it shows,” said Cowing, who had two red zone TDs.

Arizona was also much better defending the red zone, holding SDSU to 13 points in four trips with one empty possession. Last year the Wildcats held the opponent scoreless just once in 38 tries.

There’s a turnover sword!

For a first time calling plays, defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen didn’t do too badly. His unit allowed just 62 passing yards, the fewest since 2010, and overall only four yards per play.

SDSU isn’t an offensive juggernaut, by any stretch of the imagination, but with a sixth-year quarterback and some solid skill players, going 2 for 11 on the third down and completing only 46 percent of its passes is as much on Arizona’s defense as anything.

Liinebacker Jerry Roberts was “all over the place,” according to de Laura, as the senior had 12 tackles in his first game since breaking his leg at Washington State. He played all 58 defensive snaps, anchoring the middle of Nansen’s 4-2-5 scheme that frequently shifted to a 5-1-5 to stifle the Aztecs’ ground game.

The other starting linebacker, redshirt freshman Kolbe Cage, got a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter and had four tackles. He also got to partake of Arizona’s turnover sword, as did safety Jaxen Turner following his second-quarter interception.

“We got like flat footballs, and for every turnover you get you stab the football and you raise it up to the fans,” Roberts said.

It’s no Turnover Eegee, but we’ll take it, especially after the UA had its first multi-takeaway game since UCLA last October.