No. 20 Wildcats hoping to avoid letdown against FCS 'Jacks
TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) Arizona's opener against UTSA was filled with defensive miscues, a sometimes-sluggish performance on offense and an injury to one of its best players.
The Wildcats didn't get Scooby Wright back - the All-America linebacker is still a few weeks from returning - but they did clean things up on both sides of the ball in a 24-point win over Nevada.
The goal Saturday night against Northern Arizona is to keep the momentum going. No. 20 Arizona kicks off the Pac-12 season with a huge game against No. 10 UCLA next week and certainly doesn't want to take a step back against the FCS Lumberjacks.
''After watching the (Nevada) game, I thought we made improvements in a lot of areas from week one to week two,'' Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. ''There are still a lot of things we need to work on like any coach would tell you. We had some self-inflicted errors, particularly on offense we were certainly scrambling around a little bit on defense with some injuries, but our guys are a pretty consciousness group.''
Arizona (2-0) will have a size and speed advantage over Northern Arizona Saturday night, but can't afford to take the Lumberjacks lightly.
Northern Arizona (2-0) opened the season with a tough road win against Stephen F. Austin and rolled over New Mexico Highlands at home last week. The Lumberjacks were blown out 35-0 in 2013, but were within four points of Arizona at halftime in 2011 before the Wildcats ran away from them.
Arizona might want to be cognizant of the Big Sky's success through the first two weeks, too.
The conference has two wins over FBS schools, with Portland State knocking off Washington State and North Dakota taking down Wyoming, and Cal Poly kept Arizona State close before the Sun Devils scored a pair of late touchdowns.
''They are a really good team. They play extremely hard and I know they will give us their best effort,'' Rodriguez said. ''We struggled a couple of years ago against them. We know we're expected to win because we are an FBS team and they're not, but I still tell our guys the same thing. I tell them we just have to keep getting better because anyone can beat us.''
A few more things to look for when Northern Arizona faces Arizona:
REPLACING SCOOBY: Arizona was on as solid ground as any team in the country at the middle linebacker spot heading into the season with Wright coming back. It hasn't been quite so steady since then. Wright had surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left knee after being injured in the first quarter against UTSA. His backup, Cody Ippolito is out for the season with a torn ACL and Haden Gregory is out 2-to-4 weeks with an injury. That leaves the Wildcats reaching into the fourth string on the depth chart to Tre Tyler, who played through a sprained ankle last week.
WILSON RUNNING: Arizona's Nick Wilson ran for over 1,300 yards and 16 touchdowns as a freshman last season, nicely filling the shoes of All-American Ka'Deem Carey after he left for the NFL. Wilson had a solid start to this season, running for 103 yards against UTSA, but really broke out last week, rushing for 194 yards and three touchdowns. He's going to be tough for the Lumberjacks to stop.
COOKUS COOKING: Case Cookus is the first freshman to start season opener for Northern Arizona since Travis Brown in 1996. He has handled the pressure well so far, completing 69 percent of his passes for 563 yards and five touchdowns. Facing a big, fast Arizona defense will easily be his biggest test of the season, though.
THE CASTEELS: Rosemary Casteel may have a tough day deciding which team to root for on Saturday. Her husband, Jeff, is Arizona's defensive coordinator and her son, Jake, is a freshman linebacker for Northern Arizona. ''I know which team coach Casteel will be cheering for but Ms. Casteel, I hope she's rooting for Jake,'' Rodriguez said. ''Jake is a great young man and I have known him for a very long time. He's playing very well up there. Jake Casteel No. 41, a linebacker, I noticed him right away.''
LOPSIDED SERIES: Arizona is 12-1 against its smaller in-state rival, winning the last 11 games. Northern Arizona's only win in the series came in 1932, the Lumberjacks second year as a program. Arizona has won the past six meetings by an average of 23 points.