For the third straight game, Arizona’s offense took its time to get rolling. But thankfully the Wildcat defense also looked the same for the third game in a row.
The UA wrapped up nonconference play with a 31-10 win over UTEP on Saturday night at Arizona Stadium, its second easy victory at home this season.
Arizona (2-1) gained a season-high 544 yards, with 244 coming on the ground as Michael Wiley topped 1,500 rushing yards for his career and picked up his first touchdown of the season. Jayden de Laura threw three TD passes, completing 23 of 39 for 285 yards along with 33 rushing yards (and most importantly) zero turnovers.
But it was the UA defense that was once again the story. The Wildcats have allowed allowed just 44 points, their fewest in a 3-game span since the first three games of the 2013 season, and if not for a late touchdown would have held a second straight opponent to single digits at home for the first time since 2010.
UTEP (1-3) finished with 332 yards, which is actually the most the UA has allowed in a game this season. The Miners had just 49 yards on 27 carries as Arizona had three sacks and forced seven punts, a turnover on downs and grabbed a fumble.
The UA outgained UTEP 333-159 in the first half, averaging 8.8 yards per play, but only led 14-3 because of drives that ended with a turnover and a blocked field goal. But like the opener against NAU and in last week’s overtime loss at Mississippi State, the offense woke up after the break and scored on three of its first four drives.
Tyler Loop, who had a 45-yard field goal attempted blocked in the second quarter, made one from 39 yards out to make it 17-3, then Jacob Cowing caught a 2-yard TD pass for a 24-3 lead with 2:42 left in the third. Cowing had 10 receptions for 84 yards against his former team.
Cowing’s score capped a drive that began with Jonah Coleman breaking off a career-long 59-yard run and de Laura shoveling a pass to Wiley along the sideline on 3rd and long.
Gunner Maldonado ripped a ball away from UTEP running back Mike Franklin near midfield and returned it to the Miners’ 26-yard line, and three plays later Montana Lemonious-Craig scored on a 4-yard TD pass to make it 31-3. Lemonious-Craig hauled in a 26-yard reception to set up his first score with the Wildcats.
UTEP scored the first TD by an opponent in Tucson with 1:29 left, then tried to onside kick but Maldonado recovered the kick to enable Arizona to cover the 18.5-point spread. The UA is 3-0 ATS to start a season for the first time since 2010.
Arizona once again struggled on offense to start, though not nearly as badly as last week. A holding call negated a big run on the first drive, leading to a punt from midfield, then Tetairoa McMillan lost a fumble after a short catch on the second possession.
T-Mac made up for that miscue on the first play of the second quarter, catching a short screen and weaving through blockers for an 18-yard TD, finishing with 89 yards on six catches. That score was set up by three other chunk plays: a 28-yard catch over the middle by Tanner McLachlan, a 28-yard de Laura scramble and a 17-yard Wiley run.
The UA had to settle for a 45-yard field goal attempt on its next drive, wasting T-Mac’s circus catch over the middle while double covered, but it was blocked. UTEP then quickly got into the UA red zone after a 51-yard catch in which no Wildcat covered the running back coming out of the backfield.
Arizona’s defense again stiffened, with Tacario Davis breaking up two passes in the end zone to force the Miners to kick a 25-yard field goal with 5:13 left in the first half.
The Wildcats made it 14-3 with 1:23 to go before halftime on a 3-yard Wiley run, the first rushing TD this season by a UA running back.
The UA begins Pac-12 play next Saturday at Stanford, which lost 30-23 at home to FCS Sacramento State. The Cardinal (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12) have won six in a row over the Wildcats, with Arizona’s last win in Palo Alto coming in 2006.