TUCSON, Ariz. — For a half, Arizona seemed headed for a loss to a Grambling State team the Wildcats had been favored to beat by 45 points.
To call it an ugly loss would have been a major understatement.
Then Brandon Dawkins and an avalanche of Grambling turnovers prevented the unthinkable.
Dawkins, starting in place of injured Anu Solomon, ran for two touchdowns and threw for another, all in the second half, and Arizona rallied from an 18-point deficit and escaped with a 31-21 victory.
“We weren’t very pretty, that’s for sure,” Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez said
Arizona (1-1) trailed 21-3 at halftime and looked in danger of their first-ever loss to an FCS school.
But the Tigers (1-1), who lost quarterback DeVante Kincade to injury late in the first half, committed six second-half turnovers, four of them in a row in the third quarter. Backup Trevon Cherry threw three interceptions and fumbled the ball away once.
“They capitalized on all our mistakes,” Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs said.
Dawkins, a redshirt sophomore, completed 15 of 29 passes for 223 yards and gained 97 yards in 16 carries. He scored on runs of 21 and 2 yards and threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to Trey Griffey. Nick Wilson rushed for 116 yards, including an 11-yard TD run.
“Brandon, for his first start, sometimes looked like a first-time starter,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes he competed and made some plays.”
Kincade completed 15 of 19 passes for 193 yards and two scores before leaving with a leg injury with 2:38 to play in the second quarter. Grambling’s Chad Williams caught 13 passes for 152 yards.
Cody Ippolito recovered two fumbles, both leading to Arizona touchdowns, but was ejected from the game for targeting and must sit out the first half of next Saturday’s game against Hawaii.
The Tigers took the opening kickoff and went 81 yards in seven plays, Kincade throwing a 2-yard touchdown pass to Verlan Hunter.
The Wildcats had Grambling pinned in a third-and-29 situation at the Tigers 17 when Kincade threw short to Martez Carter, who raced down the sideline 49 yards to the 34. Six plays later, Kincade threw 26 yards to Devohn Lindsey for a touchdown that made it 14-0 with 11:55 left in the half.
Dawkins’ 42-yard run highlighted a drive to the Grambling 6 but, on fourth-and-1, Wilson was hit in the backfield and fumbled the ball away.
A 70-yard pass from Dawkins to Samajie Grant led to Arizona’s only first-half points, Josh Pollock’s 31-yard field goal.
“At halftime we just challenged them to see what they were made of a little bit,” Rodriguez said.
Arizona linebacker Michael Barton said the team “came out the first half flat and we did not come out with any energy.”
“We came out in the second half and responded how we should,” he said.
Solomon, a three-year starter who had to fight off Dawkins in the preseason to keep the job, injured a knee in practice during the week.
Rodriguez said surgery would not be needed but Solomon’s status for next weekend was yet to be determined.
Kincade was sprinting into an open field for what looked to be a big gain when he came up lame, hopping out of bounds on one leg in front of the Arizona bench. He had to be carried from the field.
Cherry came on to direct another score. Carter 1-yard dive initially was ruled to come up inches short of the goal line. But a video review showed the ball was just over the line for a touchdown that put Grambling State up 21-3 with 16 seconds to play in the half.
“Our tackling was as bad as it’s ever been,” Rodriguez said.
Grambling State looked like a SWAC contender when Kincade was in there and the extent of his injury could go a long way in determining how successful the Tigers are on from now on.
Arizona avoided what would have been the worst loss of the Rich Rodriguez era but the coach will have plenty to criticize in his team’s first 30 minutes of play.
Grambling State: The Tigers open SWAC play at Jackson State next Saturday.
Arizona: The Wildcats play their final nonconference game, at home against Hawaii next Saturday night.