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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona football vs. NAU preview: Will the Wildcats roll?

The+Arizona+football+team+stands+at+the+entrance+to+the+field+on+Sept.+17+at+Arizona+Stadium.+The+Wildcats+would+go+on+to+win+the+game+31-28+and+improve+their+record+to+2-1+on+the+season.%26nbsp%3B
Kohichiro Yamada

The Arizona football team stands at the entrance to the field on Sept. 17 at Arizona Stadium. The Wildcats would go on to win the game 31-28 and improve their record to 2-1 on the season. 

The Arizona football team opens its season against NAU on Saturday, Sept. 2, at 7 p.m. at Arizona Stadium. Third-year head coach Jedd Fisch will look to lead the Wildcats to their ceremonial win over the Lumberjacks to start the season off strong.

History

The Arizona-NAU rivalry can only loosely be described as such. In 17 matchups, all but one were played in Tucson and all but two fell in the Wildcats’ favor. However, the Wildcats fell short in the 2021 matchup, losing by 21-19 in front of their home crowd. The 2021 loss was unprecedented – the only other time the Wildcats dropped a game against NAU was in a 7-6 loss in 1932.

The new-look Arizona offense should give NAU fits. Historically, the Wildcats have averaged 38.24 points per game against the Lumberjacks. In the 2021 season, Arizona averaged just 17.17 points per game, but that figure jumped up to 30.83 points per game in just one offseason. The Wildcats should be able to get this monkey off of their backs and get back to their winning ways against lesser competition.

NAU’s offseason

RJ Martinez, the starting quarterback for the Lumberjacks last season, transferred to Baylor University in the offseason. Jeff Widener and Xander Werner, the only two other players to attempt passes in the season, aren’t even listed as quarterbacks on the roster anymore. Widener made the switch to defensive back/linebacker in the offseason and Werner is on the roster as a tight end. This leaves a quarterback room that’s six players deep with no clear-cut starter.

However, Coleman Owen and Hendrix Johnson are returning after being first and second on the team in receiving yards, respectively. Owen, a redshirt junior, posted 690 yards and 4 touchdowns on 62 catches while Johnson, a senior, posted 671 yards and 5 touchdowns on 60 catches. Leading rusher Draycen Hall is returning for his junior season as well, after posting 589 rushing yards, 344 receiving yards and 3 total touchdowns. Hall is poised to be the engine of this NAU offense being headed by a new signal-caller.

Defensive back Morgan Vest, a key defensive veteran for NAU and leading tackler, is out of eligibility and is currently testing the waters as a pro. However, defensive back Kamdan Hightower, linebacker Jhasi Wilson and linebacker Heston Lameta all posted 60+ tackles and are returning for the 2023 season. Senior defensive lineman Eloi Kwete, who led the team with seven sacks, is also returning alongside his younger brother Richard Kwete.

Wildcats to watch

NAU will have their hands full dealing with an Arizona team that’s in year three of a massive culture shift, and the whole foundation of Arizona football has changed since the last meeting. In combination with the upheaval happening in Flagstaff, the Arizona offense should feast and the defense should swarm.

NAU favored putting the ball in Hall’s hands; the season low for rushing attempts was 22 against the University of Idaho. Against the University of Northern Colorado, Hall attempted 24 of the 43 rushes in that game. Arizona linebackers Jacob Manu, Daniel Heimuli and Justin Flowe will be the inflection points for the game if they can snuff out the run-heavy attack. 

The Arizona defensive line should be able to get pressure through an offensive line that is only returning with two starters from last season in Blake Gamez at center and Caiden Miles at left guard. New Wildcat edge rushers Isaiah Ward and Taylor Upshaw should feast against the inexperienced tackles they will be facing.

The NAU defensive backfield also thinned out significantly with the losses of Vest and Alonzo Davis, last year’s team leader in interceptions. Wide receivers Jacob Cowing, Tetairoa McMillan and Montana Lemonious-Craig all have a solid chance at leaving defenders in their dust on a deep touchdown catch. Running back Michael Wiley and tight end Tanner McLachlan should leave the NAU linebackers in a frenzy as well.

It’s safe to count on Arizona starting the 2023 season 1-0, and they’ll need all the momentum they can get heading into their Sept. 9 road matchup against Mississippi State University.


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