The good news for University of Arizona football fans: The Widcats showcased an effective running game in their season-opening win last night in Tucson.
The bad news: Northern Arizona University, an FCS program in the Big Sky Conference, was the opponent – a heavy underdog coming into the game.
The really bad news: NAU put up better stats in just about every other offensive category.
While the Cats used a dominating ground game to pull away from the Lumberjacks in the second half, piling up a game total 506 rushing yards to 185 for their visitors from up north, there were some areas on the final stat sheet that should be of concern to the Arizona coaching staff.
The 62-24 final score was not surprising and, in fact, has come to be expected when the Pac-12 school hosts its in-state opponent every two years. The last time the teams met, in 2015, Arizona romped to a 77-13 victory and set school records for points, total yards, and rushing yards.
Last night’s game nearly saw another UofA record fall; they needed just six more rushing yards to break the current mark of 511.
But a closer look at what happened en route to this year’s lopsided result will show why the Wildcats weren’t able to begin pulling away from the ‘Jacks until the second half got underway.
NAU was down just two touchdowns before Arizona quarterback Brandon Dawkins scored on a 10-yard run with just 21 seconds left in the first half, giving the Cats a 34-14 lead going into the locker room. Three first-half turnovers by NAU was a big contributor to Arizona’s lead going into the third quarter.
Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, a junior safety from nearby Mountain View High School in Tucson, took the lead in disrupting the NAU offense in the first half, intercepting a Cookus pass on the 1-yard line and then getting a second pick to set up Dawkins’ 10-yard TD.
While it was the failure of the ‘Jacks’ defense to hold down the Arizona run game, it’s more disturbing that the Cats were unable to contain the NAU offense any better than they did. Arizona ran up 595 total yards of offense – but NAU managed to pile up 562 yards of its own.
A big part of that was a couple of 100-yard rushing performances by junior running back Joe Logan and Cory Young, a sophomore RB from Estrella Hills High School in Goodyear. Young ran for 115 yards on 11 carries and Logan added 101 yards on 15 carries.
Arizona used six different players to score rushing touchdowns, with Dawkins leading the way with three.
NAU sophomore quarter back Case Cookus made up for his team’s rushing disadvantage by working his way through the Arizona secondary for 306 yards on 21-of-38 passing, but also contributed three turnovers to the Arizona win. He connected with senior receiver Elijah Marks eight times for 147 of those yards.
A few more reasons for concern:
The Wildcat defense had a difficult time keeping the Jacks’ offense off the field. NAU’s time of possession was 35:15, while the Cats had the ball for 25:45.
NAU also had more first downs, 29 to 23, and were able to convert third downs on more than half of their attempts (10-for-19). UofA converted three of 10.
This was just the first game of the season, time to shake off the rust and get past the opening jitters. But next week, the Wildcats likely won’t be able to wait until the second half to get their engine warmed up.
Next Saturday, Arizona hosts the University of Houston, an FBS program coming off a 9-4 season in which it knocked off two teams ranked in the top three nationally at the time.
Houston’s first game was postponed because of Hurricane Harvey, so this will be the Cougars’ season opener.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics/ Stan Liu)