TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona closed last season by running for more than 500 yards and opened this season by doing the same thing.
The defense? Still needs a little work.
Brandon Dawkins accounted for three touchdowns and Arizona ran for 506 yards to offset some defensive breakdowns in a season-opening, 62-24 victory over Northern Arizona on Saturday night.
“We’ve got some cleaning up to do,” said Arizona safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, who had two key interceptions. “Games aren’t perfect, it was the first game, and we’ve got to be able to shake it off and come in next week and respond.”
Arizona struggled to slow the FCS Lumberjacks and sputtered on offense in the first quarter before coming alive.
Shun Brown sparked the Wildcats with a 66-yard punt return for a touchdown and Dawkins got their offense going with his arm and his legs. The junior ran for 92 yards and two touchdowns on seven carries, and threw for 89 yards and a score to help the Wildcats win their 17th straight home opener.
Arizona had six different players score rushing touchdowns and fell just short of the school record of 511 yards rushing set in the 2016 season finale against Arizona State.
The run game made up for the lapses by a young defense that allowed 562 yards to an FCS opponent.
“It’s hard to say anyone played well when you give up 500 yards,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said.
Case Cookus threw for 306 yards on 21-of-38 passing for Northern Arizona, but also had three turnovers. Cory Young ran for 115 yards and two scores for the Lumberjacks, who were unable to hang with the bigger, faster Wildcats after a strong start.
“We can’t replicate that kind of speed in practice,” Northern Arizona coach Jerome Souers. “We don’t have anybody who can create that look, so the first time those kids see it, it’s going to be in a game. You either react well or, whoosh, he’s gone.”
The Lumberjacks had a rough trip to Tucson two years ago, losing 77-13 as Arizona set school records for points, total yards (792) and rushing yards (499).
Northern Arizona was much better defensively at the start and had no trouble moving the ball against Arizona’s young defense. The Lumberjacks broke off several long plays, including Young’s 58-yard touchdown run, and outgained the Wildcats in the first half.
The problem was turnovers.
Cookus lost a fumble when he was blindsided in the first quarter, setting up Wilson’s 46-yard touchdown run .
Cookus later tried to squeeze a pass into coverage near the end zone that was picked off by Flannigan-Fowles at the 1-yard line. Flannigan-Fowles had another pick late in the half, setting up a 10-yard scoring run by Dawkins that put Arizona up 34-14 at halftime.
“They scored off our turnovers, so we can’t have those,” Young said. “That was a focal point in the game.”
Dawkins raced off for a 66-yard touchdown to open the second half and Arizona’s defense, which gave up 203 yards in the first quarter, slowed the Lumberjacks before allowing a couple of late scores with the game out of reach.
Northern Arizona proved it can move the ball on offense, but can’t afford the turnovers, particularly against an FBS team.
Arizona did what it was supposed to against an FCS school, but there are still questions on defense.
Arizona had three touchdowns called back by penalties, though managed to still score after one: Dawkins on a 10-yard run just before halftime after a holding call negated a 58-yard scoring run by Dawkins.
“Frustrated’s a word; there’s a lot of meaning with that,” said Dawkins, who had two TDs called back. “I wouldn’t say frustrated, just minor tweaks that we need to make to make sure those don’t get called back.”
Arizona pulled off a bit of razzle dazzle for a touchdown in the second quarter, when slot receiver Tyrell Johnson took a reverse around the left end for a 55-yard touchdown that put Arizona up 28-14.
Arizona had six players finish with at least 50 yards rushing. … Northern Arizona’s Elijah Marks had eight catches for 147 yards. … Seven different Arizona players scored touchdowns. … NAU’s Joe Logan ran for 101 yards and a touchdown.
Northern Arizona faces Western Illinois next Saturday.
Arizona hosts Houston next Saturday in what should be a high-scoring game.