Arizona ready to take next step after opening win
Arizona did what it was supposed to in its opener against Northern Arizona.
The Wildcats overpowered their FCS opponent in the 35-0 win, posting their second shutout under Rich Rodriguez while getting their second season under the coach off to a solid start.
Still, it was far from perfect.
The offense wasn't quite the juggernaut it was last season, the game plan bland by Rodriguez's usual standards. The offensive line had a blase start and the top running back, one who led the nation in yards rushing last season, didn't even play. And the special teams were closer to awful than special.
Yep, there's plenty to work to do before Arizona faces what will surely be a step up in competition Saturday at UNLV.
''The guys played pretty hard, a lot of the young guys were able to get the jitters out the first game, but we've got to get a lot better and I think our guys know that,'' Rodriguez said during his weekly news conference on Monday.
There was plenty to like in Arizona's opener.
Quarterback B.J. Denker, who won a who-knows-how-many-way battle to be the starter, was efficient in his first game, competently running the Wildcats' offense while beating the Lumberjacks with his arm and legs. He wasn't named the starter last week, but Rodriguez said he'll get the first call against UNLV after a solid first game. Backup Javelle Allen had a quick impact after Denker left, racing off for a 61-yard touchdown run.
Daniel Jenkins, playing in place of suspended starter Ka'Deem Carey, had a superb opener, breaking off a 91-yard touchdown run - the third-longest TD run in school history - and caught a touchdown pass while gaining 150 combined yards.
And the defense, the weak point to last year's 8-5 team, had a solid start, pushing around the smaller Lumberjacks while forcing three interceptions, including two by Tra'Mayne Bondurant.
The good things the Wildcats were able to do allowed them to mask the things that didn't go so well.
One glaring area that needs work is special teams.
Returner Nate Phillips muffed two punts - Arizona recovered both - Drew Riggleman had two punts that went less than 20 yards and kicker Jake Smith missed a 28-yard field goal.
Arizona was able to get away with the miscues against NAU, but can't afford another game like that when the quality of opponent rises.
''It's disappointing because we put a lot of time into special teams and we will continue to try to fix it,'' Rodriguez said. ''We've got to get better.''
The offensive line wasn't exactly great, either.
Despite a decided advantage in size and strength, Arizona's O-line spent most of the game leaning on NAU's defensive players instead of blowing them off the ball. The Wildcats still had plenty of big plays, but could have had a few more if the offensive line had been a bit more aggressive.
''Most of us were pretty nervous for the first game of the year and we were hesitant at times,'' guard Chris Putton said. ''We were thinking too much at times and I think that's where we lost it.''
Despite the so-so game by the offensive line, the offense put up good numbers, though not like last season.
Part of it was NAU's game planning; coach Jerome Souers had his team milking the play clock before almost every snap, limiting the amount of time Arizona's offense had the ball. The Wildcats ran 47 plays on offense - about what they ran in several halves last season in Rodriguez's snap-it-when-you-get-it offense.
Rodriguez also was a little more conservative with his play-calling than usual.
Some of it came from his team's success at running the ball. The Wildcats had 306 yards rushing on 34 attempts and were so effective the coach felt no need to start chucking the ball around. Arizona also built an early lead and Rodriguez didn't see a need to pile it on against the smaller in-state foe.
But slowing it down isn't in Rodriguez's nature, so seeing his team grinding instead of racing was a little tough to take.
''I didn't feel like we were really unaggressive in our play-calling, but I felt like we could let loose a little more,'' Rodriguez said. ''I don't like holding things close to the vest and I told the players that's on me. We've got to let it loose a little more in all three phases.''
The first game out of the way, the Wildcats now get to see if they learned anything before the next one.