TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona's rash of mistakes left the door open for Northern Arizona to pull off another desert upset.
Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei and Tacario Davis slammed the door on the Lumberjacks.
Jayden de Laura accounted for four touchdowns, Davis returned Uiagalelei's blocked field goal 85 yards for a score and Arizona opened the season a 38-3 win over Northern Arizona on Saturday night.
“You’re going in there, a one-score game, and all sudden they block it and run it back for a touchdown,” Northern Arizona coach Chris Ball said. “That hurts.”
Arizona (1-0) lost to the FCS Lumberjacks (0-1) at home two years ago at the start of coach Jedd Fisch's desert rebuild. The Wildcats had a hard time getting out of their own way in the first half of the rematch before rolling over Northern Arizona in the second.
Sparked by Davis' return, Arizona turned an 11-point halftime lead to 32 by the end of the third quarter. De Laura punctuated the outburst with a 53-yard TD run, nearly losing his balance before racing up the sideline.
De Laura threw for 285 yards and three touchdowns on 18-of-24 passing with a fourth-quarter interception on a miscommunication in the end zone.
“I think that showed up a little bit that we need to clear up and we will we certainly will, but I don’t think there was any question that they played with an incredible passion and energy tonight at all three phases,” Fisch said.
The Lumberjacks' last trip to Tucson was a nadir for them, a low point for the Wildcats.
Northern Arizona's 21-19 win in 2021 was its first over a Pac-12 opponent and extended Arizona's losing streak to 15 games, which would later reach 20.
Only a handful of Wildcats' players are still on the roster from that game, but it was certainly on their minds.
Arizona got off to a good start, scoring on a 4-yard TD pass from de Laura to Jacob Cowing. Johah Coleman made it 14-0 by breaking a tackle and reaching for the pylon on a 7-yard touchdown catch.
The rest of the half was littered with mistakes.
The Wildcats turned the ball over on downs at NAU's 35-yard line and de Laura lost a fumble inside NAU's 20-yard line.
Defensively, Arizona extended NAU's last drive with a roughing the kicker penalty and later added a personal foul. After a holding call negated a touchdown, Marcus Lye kicked a 49-yard field goal to pull the Lumberjacks within 14-3 — still within striking distance despite being outgained 263-100 in total yards.
“Defensively, at times, we played really, really well,” NAU coach Chris Ball said. “I liked our physicality defensively.”
Riding the momentum of a close first half, NAU reached Arizona's 14-yard line with the help of a targeting penalty on Arizona defensive back Gunner Maldanado. After a holding call negated a Lumberjacks' touchdown, Uiagalelei blocked Lye's field goal attempt and Davis returned it for the longest blocked field goal return in the Pac-12 since 1996.
Arizona's defense stopped the Lumberjacks on a fourth-and-2 from their own 38 the next series. Four plays later, de Laura found Tetairoa McMillan on a 5-yard touchdown and later scored on the 53-yard run to make it 35-3 — well on their way to turning the rematch against NAU into a rout.
Arizona's Michael Wiley has been one of the Pac-12's most versatile running backs and he showed it off against NAU.
Willey led Arizona with 52 yards rushing and caught six passes for another 57 yards. He joined Vance Johnson (104 from 1981-84) as the only Arizona running backs with 100 career receptions.
Arizona's running backs combined for 118 yards on 10 catches.
Northern Arizona: The Lumberjacks didn't pull off the upset this time, but did enough good things against a Pac-12 opponent that should help them in Big Sky play.
Arizona: The Wildcats had some shaky moments early and too many penalties. The end result turned out to be what they expected against an FCS opponent.
Northern Arizona: Plays at North Dakota next Saturday.
Arizona: Plays at Mississippi State next Saturday.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll