If you’re a college football fan in Arizona, it didn’t make much difference last night whether you were rooting for Arizona Sate or University of Arizona. After the first half of play in the season openers, it had to feel like this is going to be a long season.
It was a painful way to start a new season.
The Sun Devils managed to recover in the second half, but the Wildcats’ attempted rally from a nine-point halftime deficit fell short.
ASU was hosting Northern Arizona University at home and UofA was playing BYU at University of Phoenix Stadium, home of the Arizona Cardinals in Glendale, marking the first time in history the two teams played on the same night in the Valley, but not against each other.
Arizona State opened the 2016 season against its ‘little brother’ up north, an FCS team that plays in the Big Sky Conference. The last time the two teams played, ASU won 63-3. The last time the Lumberjacks beat the Sun Devils was 1938.
But last night, NAU was still hanging in there at halftime, just a TD behind their Pac-12 opponent. ASU scored on the first possession of the game when redshirt sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins, making his first career start, capped off a seven-play drive with a 13-yard scamper into the end zone. But the Devils couldn’t do more than kick a field goal the rest of the way in the first half and led just 10-3 at intermission.
And NAU nearly tied it up on the last play of the half, plucking a deflected ‘Hail Mary’ pass out of the air and carrying it to the one-yard line before time expired.
Meanwhile, just miles away, the Wildcats were unable to get a point on the board in the first half as BYU took a 9-0 lead into halftime. Arizona managed a field goal with six minutes left to go in the third quarter to close the gap a little, but it was still 9-3 going into the final period.
Junior running back Nick Wilson took on the job of getting the Cats back into the game, and actually gave them a 16-15 lead after scoring on a 15-yard run at the 9:33 mark and then pulling off a stunning 49-yard run right up the middle of the BYU defense for his second TD in the final minutes. A two-point conversion try failed, and that gave BYU a chance to win the game with a field goal.
The Cougars had just 1:26 to get within kicking range, but they managed to drive down the field and give Jake Oldroyd a chance to kick a 33-yard field goal, With eight seconds left on the clock, he split the uprights on his first college FG attempt to give BYU the cliff-hanger 18-16 victory.
Anu Solomon got the starting nod at quarterback after head coach Rich Rodriguez kept his decision under wraps until the morning of the game. The redshirt junior finished with 213 yards passing and minus-20 running. He was intercepted twice.
Back in Tempe, Arizona State took awhile to get back on the board in its struggle against NAU – but once the Devils did the points began piling up.
With five seconds left to go in the third quarter, junior running back Demario Richard ran for the final two yards of a 15-play drive to hike the score to 20-6. The normally-explosive Sun Devil offense was waking up and taking charge, racking up 24 points in the final quarter to post the 44-13 opening win, which gives head coach Todd Graham a victory to start each one of his five years at the helm.
NAU’s sophomore quarterback Case Cookus hooked up with junior wide receiver Elijah Marks for an 87-yard touchdown strike that pulled the ‘Jacks within two scores and 10:39 yet to play to give their fans something to cheer about. But it was too little, too late. The Sun Devils’ defense clamped down in the fourth quarter, allowing just 22 yards outside of the Marks touchdown.
The Devils got scoring contributions from three different players in the fourth quarter as N’Keal Harry scored on a 34-yard run, Kalen Ballage ran 30 yards for another, and Nick Ralston capped the scoring on a 12-yard TD run.
Yardage total was similar for both teams, with ASU collecting 456 total yards and NAU right behind with 425. But it was Cookus shredding the ASU secondary for 367 passing yards that kept the Lumberjacks in the game.
(Photo: UA Athletics/ Chris Coduto)