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Arizona defense shines in season-opening win over NAU

arizona-wildcats-football-nau-lumberjacks-recap-final-score-highlights-stats-2023-pac12-big-sky Zachary BonDurant-USA TODAY Sports

If you tuned in to Arizona’s 2023 opener to see if all the talk of a revamped defense was warranted, you probably had an enjoyable evening.

That much-maligned unit stole the show on opening night, pacing Arizona to a 38-3 win over NAU on Saturday night at Arizona Stadium. The announced crowd of 48,159, the largest for a home opener since 2018, saw the Wildcats allow the fewest yards in a season opener since shutting out the Lumberjacks 35-0 in 2013.

A season removed from finishing at or bottom the Pac-12 in almost every defensive category, Arizona limited NAU to 264 yards while forcing a turnover, recording eight tackles for loss, making three 4th-down stops—one on the goal line—and blocking a field goal attempt that was returned for a touchdown. It was the first time they held an opponent under 20 points since the 10-3 win over Cal in November 2021.

That side of the ball was so impressive it overshadowed an offensive performance that, save for a few miscues, looked just as effective as the 2022 version. The UA finished with 478 yards, 186 on the ground, averaging 9.2 yards per play

Jayden de Laura accounted for four scores, three via the air as well as a long TD run, finishing with 332 yards of total offense that included 255 on 18-of-24 passing. He also turned it over twice, losing a fumble in the first half and getting intercepted in the end zone in the fourth quarter.

Michael Wiley had 109 yards from scrimmage, including six catches that made him the second UA running back with 100 career receptions, while Jacob Cowing, Jonah Coleman and Tetairoa McMillan each caught TD passes.

While the offense was mostly good, the retooled Arizona defense looked stout from the outset, forcing punts on NAU’s first two possessions and a turnover on the third. The takeaway came when Dalton Johnson punched out the ball and Daniel Heimuli fell on it.

Arizona held NAU to 100 yards in the first half, including only 29 on the ground, and had five tackles for loss.

The UA only led 14-3 at intermission, though, despite outgaining NAU 263-100. And a few minutes into the third quarter the Lumberjacks were in the red zone following a 31-yard catch by BJ Fleming and a targeting penalty against safety Gunner Maldonado. Maldonado will have to sit out the first half of next week’s game at Mississippi State.

But like it did almost all of the first half, Arizona’s defense wouldn’t give in. Two short runs, an incomplete pass and a delay of game penalty caused NAU to attempt a 26-yard field goal, but Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei blocked the kick and Tacario Davis returned it 85 yards for a TD to make it 21-3.

It was Arizona’s first blocked kick returned for a score since 2002, and the longest by a Pac-12 team since at least 1996.

The Wildcats didn’t get the ball on offense until midway through the third quarter, and went 3-and-out, but the UA defense stepped up again and stuffed NAU on a 4th-and-2 from its own 37 a few minutes later. Arizona capitalized on the short field, going up 28-3 with 4:34 left in the third on a 5-yard TD catch by McMillan.

De Laura made it 35-3 late in the third quarter on a 53-yard TD run, the longest of his career, on an RPO play. And after the Wildcats stopped the Lumberjacks on 4th-and-goal from inside the 1 early in the fourth quarter they flipped the field and tacked on a 35-yard field goal from Tyler Loop with 10:46 left.

Arizona’s offense was clicking on all cylinders out of the gate, marching 65 yards in seven plays on the opening drive with Cowing scoring on a 4-yard TD catch less than four minutes in. That score was set up by Coleman’s 37-yard reception, surpassing his entire receiving yardage (28) from his freshman year.

Coleman, who had three catches for 59 yards and 29 rushing yards on three carries, scored on a 7-yard swing pass early in the second quarter to make it 14-0. The UA had a chance to go up three scores on its next possession but de Laura lost a fumble trying to scramble inside the 10-yard line after no receiver was open.

NAU got on the scoreboard as time expired on a 49-yard field goal by Marcus Lye, but that came after the Lumberjacks got down to the UA 20 before moving backwards.

Arizona hits the road next week to visit Mississippi State, whom it lost to at home 39-22 last September. The Wildcats haven’t won a nonconference road game against a power-conference opponent since 1994 and last beat an SEC team in 1976.