Arizona uses red-hot third quarter to pull away from Northern Arizona in opener
Arizona lost to the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, out of the FCS, at home two years ago. That year was the start of Jedd Fisch’s desert rebuild, and Fisch said earlier this week it illustrated to him how much better the UA needed to get. And how quickly it needed to do so.
Fast-forward two years later. Arizona entered Saturday looking to build off of the 2022 season — one of the best turnaround years in school history — and had a chance to exorcise some demons against that same NAU squad. Through the first 30 minutes, Arizona had a lead, but it didn’t exactly feel comfortable. Four first-half drives ended with two scores, a fumble, and a turnover on downs.
In the third quarter, Arizona took complete control. The Wildcats blocked and returned a kick for a touchdown and shut down the NAU offense to pull away and win 38-3.
The three points Arizona surrendered marked the fewest in a season opener for the Wildcats since 2013.
“We’re getting better,” Fisch said after the game. “We’re certainly getting better as a team. I mean, two years ago, we sat here against this team and didn’t have the same conversation.”
The game changed on the blocked kick.
The Wildcats held a 14-3 lead going into the locker room at the halftime break. The Lumberjacks kicked a field goal off a seven-minute drive to end the first half, then they opened the third quarter with another lengthy march.
They began at their own 25 and drove all the way to the Arizona 4-yard-line. An incompletion on third-and-goal brought up a fourth and, to help its angle, NAU took a delay to set up a 26-yard field goal attempt.
Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei got a hand on the kick. Tacario Davis returned it 85 yards for six points the other way.
TACARIO DAVIS TO THE HOUSEEEEE‼️‼️‼️
First blocked field goal returned for a TD since 2002.
📺: Pac-12 Network pic.twitter.com/oeelBUdvIS
— Arizona Football (@ArizonaFBall) September 3, 2023
It was Arizona’s first block return for a touchdown since 2002. And it was the longest in the Pac-12 in over 25 years.
From then on out, NAU could not move the football. Its drive chart went as follows:
- Three plays, 1 yard, punt
- Four plays, 8 yards, turnover on downs
- Three plays, 6 yards, punt
- Eight plays, 57 yards, turnover on downs
- Three plays, 5 yards, punt
- Three plays, minus-15 yards, punt
- Seven plays, 22 yards, turnover on downs
Eighty-four yards on 31 plays. No points.
Arizona spent the offseason hoping to rebuild its defense after all the struggles that side of the football endured the year prior. Fisch and the coaching staff felt they needed to build depth in the front seven. So far, so good.
“Very excited with the way the defense played,” Fisch said. “That rotation makes a huge difference. You can see a fresher player makes a difference. They’re harder to block. Now we’ve got a challenge coming up this week with an SEC school that is going to have a really big offensive line that we’re going to have to really be able to rotate our guys then as well. But it was certainly nice to see probably four or five linebackers played the game tonight, and certainly eight to 10 defensive linemen, if not more.”
NAU finished with just 79 rushing yards in the contest, adjusted for sacks. On the other side, Arizona went off for 478 yards at 9 yards a pop.
Quarterback Jayden de Laura completed 18 of his 24 passes for 285 yards and three scores. Though he did have an interception and a fumble, he added 47 rushing yards and another touchdown. Wideout Tetairoa McMillan led the receiving corps with 65 yards and a touchdown on three catches.
Arizona (1-0) travels to Mississippi State next. Kickoff next Saturday, Sept. 9, is set for 4:30 p.m. PT on the SEC Network.