TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — One of Jedd Fisch's top priorities when he took over as Arizona's head coach was to rebuild one of the FBS' worst defenses.
Through recruiting and the transfer portal, the Wildcats are faster, stronger and deeper — as UTEP found out.
Jayden de Laura threw for 285 yards and three touchdowns, and Arizona's defense shut down the Miners for a 31-10 win on Saturday night.
“I'm really, really proud of the way our defense is playing,” Arizona coach Jedd Fisch said. "Our defense is really stepping up."
The Wildcats (2-1) bounced back from an overtime road loss to Mississippi State last week with a dominating defensive performance. Arizona forced the Miners (1-3) into a fumble, a turnover on downs and seven punts in 10 drives before scoring a late touchdown.
The Wildcats poured it on offensively after some shaky early moments, pushing an 11-point halftime lead to 28 early in the fourth quarter. De Laura led the way after throwing four interceptions last week, hitting 23 of 29 passes with no interceptions in Arizona's 14th straight win over UTEP.
“I just let them make plays,” de Laura said. “I don't need to do too much. That's what we saw on the film.”
The Wildcats played a choppy first half against the Miners a week after turning it over five times against Mississippi State
Tetairoa McMillan turned a receiver screen into an 18-yard touchdown, but also lost a fumble near midfield. McMillan later had a spectacular one-handed, 37-yard catch to UTEP's 32. The Miners blocked Tyler Loop's 45-yard field goal to prevent Arizona from capitalizing.
Arizona looked sharp offensively on a closing 57-yard drive, capped by Michael Wiley's 3-yard touchdown run.
The Wildcats had a 333-159 advantage in first-half yards, yet led by just 14-3.
“We gave up some yards, but the points were good,” UTEP coach Dana Dimel said. “We did a good job of bending not breaking, but the offense needed to have more success to take some stress off the defense.”
The stress wore the Miners out.
Its offense unable to do much of anything against Arizona, UTEP's defense broke down against the Wildcats' offense in the second half.
Loop kicked a 38-yard field goal on the Wildcats' opening drive and Jonah Coleman broke off a 59-yard run on the next possession. De Laura kept the drive going by converting a third down with a flip throw to Wiley for a 15-yard gain, then found Jacob Cowing for a 2-yard touchdown reception.
Montana Lemonious-Craig put Arizona up 31-3 early in the fourth quarter on a 4-yard touchdown pass, three plays after Gunner Maldonado snatched the ball from UTEP running back Mike Franklin for a fumble recovery.
“We got worn down,” Dimel said. “It's a very explosive offense and we've got to hold the ball more. That's what we do.”
McMillan had an early candidate for catch of the year with his spectacular one-handed grab in the second quarter.
Running between two defenders, McMillan reached up behind him and pulled down the 37-yard catch with one hand, cradling the ball to his body just before hitting the turf at UTEP’s 32-yard line.
“I'm going to see a lot of those over the next few years and I've (already) seen a lot of them,” Fisch said. “He's super gifted.”
Cowing played three seasons at UTEP before transferring to Arizona last season.
The fifth-year senior had a big night against his former team, catching 10 passes for 84 yards and a touchdown.
"It was cool to go against them in a game instead of practice," he said. “It was good seeing some of those guys again.”
UTEP: The Miners kept it close in the first half against a Power Five opponent for the second straight week, only to wear down again in the second half.
Arizona: The Wildcats got in their own way through most of the first half before clicking late in the second half. A strong game from de Laura was just what they needed to bounce back from last week's loss.
UTEP: Hosts UNLV in its Conference USA opener next Saturday.
Arizona: Opens Pac-12 play at Stanford next Saturday.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll